The scandal surrounding the sudden resignation of an adulterous CIA director has stunned the American public not just for its prominent cast of characters but also because of the ease with which authorities appeared to have traipsed through personal email accounts.
Technology has transformed communications much faster than the law giving US authorities at all levels the power to routinely search reams of intimate emails texts and instant messages with much lower burdens of proof as far as the relevance to a criminal case. Often the subjects of electronic searches never know that they have been hit let alone why.
The issue has been thrust into the spotlight by the still-unfolding scandal that started with the revelation that General David Petraeus while serving as CIA director had an extramarital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell. Jill Kelley, a Tampa socialite and family friend of Petraeus, herself didn't realise how badly an electronic inquiry could mushroom beyond control. She wrote an email on Wednesday to Tampa Bay's mayor that said her family had been "put through the ringer" in part because police released 911 phone call transcripts with her home address and cell phone number. That email in turn was among those released Friday after public-records requests to city hall from the media.
Putting lives online
Authorised snooping has quietly but rapidly reached an unprecedented level in the US and the disgrace of senior military officials not accused of any crime provides a rare opportunity to reflect on that transformation, privacy rights advocates said. "If they subpoena you for your evidence you can say 'buzz off'. That's why all these are being served on third parties," said George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr a former Justice Department trial attorney. "It's hidden information and the service providers can comply cheaply and easily."