Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Your E-mail and the FBI

by Sandra Parshall

I guess I’m jaded, because the prurient details of the Petraeus-Broadwell-Kelley-Allen kerfuffle don’t interest me. The computer stuff grabbed my attention. I don’t meet a lot of generals, but I am tethered to my computer like some poor dog chained in a junkyard.

First item of interest: The FBI doesn’t need a warrant signed by a judge to dig around in a citizen’s personal e-mail. I must have known this at some level, but I never gave it any thought before. Then I learned that even the e-mail account of the Central Intelligence Agency director becomes an open book to the FBI if they obtain a subpoena from a federal prosecutor. They don’t have to serve a warrant on the owner of the account. With a subpoena, they can compel the service provider to give them access.

Second item of interest: Apparently Petraeus and Broadwell could communicate in “private” (ha!) by leaving messages in the drafts section of his e-mail account. This is a tidbit to make note of for future use in a book.

Third item of interest: Jill Kelley, the Petraeus friend who ignited the scandal by complaining to the FBI about harassing e-mails from Broadwell, turned out to be “linked” (as they say; supply your own definition) to General John Allen, Petraeus’s successor as commander of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. She had 30,000 pages of e-mail from Allen on her computer. I don’t care about the affair, but I’d love to know more about those 30,000 pages of e-mail. What’s in them? And where, oh where, did he find the time for all that e-mailing? I don’t want to believe that a general on active duty spent vast amounts of his time composing personal e-mails to a Florida socialite. Maybe he was sending her the entire text of books that he thought she might enjoy. The complete works of both Dickens and Joyce Carol Oates, perhaps.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will meet soon to consider legislation that would make a warrant for all internet communications mandatory. The bill might not pass, because law enforcement officials are against this restriction. The ACLU is strongly in favor of it. Chris Soghoian, a senior policy analyst for the watchdog group, says, "These are invasive powers that need to have a check against overuse and abuse. And that check should be a judge."

Meanwhile, if the FBI decided to take a look-see at your e-mail account, what would they find? Oh, you don’t think they’ll ever be interested in you? Read the long and appallingly generic list of words they search for in social networking communications (yes, they’re monitoring Facebook), and you might wonder why they haven’t shown up at your door yet.

Almost all crime fiction writers do research online, and we have a list of experts such as Dr. Doug Lyle and former cop Lee Lofland who generously answer our questions. We also post questions to various e-mail listservs. One day I might be asking where to find a dealer in illegal guns, and the next I might be asking which accelerant will most quickly burn a house to the ground. I may want detailed information about undetectable poisons.

The real mother lode is on the hard disk of my computer. I have files on every sort of crime, unusual murder methods, guns, lock-picking, the kinds of trace evidence that a smart killer will avoid leaving at a crime scene (do you want your darling cat’s hair to lead the police to you?). On the whole, my information collection doesn’t make a good impression.

On the plus side is the total absence of e-mails from highly-placed people involved in national security.

How about you? Have you ever written an e-mail you wouldn’t want to become public knowledge? Do you worry that somebody has a copy of it either on a server or a hard drive? Do you save all your e-mail, even stuff you should probably delete?

And do you worry that what you delete isn’t really gone, that somebody with sophisticated recovery software could find it and expect you to explain it?


Anonymous said...

Sandy, you have put some very important red flags in the minds of those of us who enjoy your blogs! Last night's TV news also gave warnings re one's passwords. We are all getting wake up calls! I am on verizon and had a problem last month where my blogs re the NY-MWA voting process would not go through and were listed as spam! This was annoying and after threatening to go to the FBI this stopped! Was I being hounded by a hacker? Probably. Like yourself, I deal with all kinds of negative-sounding material on the computer - from poison to guns to human traffic to time of death to a zillion items re espionage! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

G.M. Malliet said...

Great minds think alike, Sandra. I mention some of this concern in a blog I'll be posting Friday. I put much of my crime-writing research in an email folder labeled "Research." Maybe I should just label it "FBI" to make it easier for them to find.

Like you, I was fascinated by the use of a drafts folder in an email account (a tip apparently picked up from the habits of terrorists).

Pat Marinelli said...

I'm also have folder after folder crime info. I find this whole hide-the-e-mail thing extremely interesting. Who knew? Do I worry? Not really. I figure the FBI would have been here already if they were interested. lol

Sandra Parshall said...

Hackers are a greater danger to us innocent mystery writers, I think. Hackers are a danger to EVERYBODY who does anything online. People make themselves especially vulnerable by linking all their accounts -- Twitter, Facebook, blog, etc. If a hacker can get into one, he's into all the rest at the same time.

The December issue of Wired magazine has a piece by a guy whose accounts were hacked. He lost everything, including every photo he'd taken of his baby daughter. He offers some good advice about passwords, which I plan to follow, even though it means laboriously changing all of my passwords (I have a whole notebook of them). He recommends giving bogus answers to security questions, never using the same password twice, using nonsense words instead of real ones, and making your passwords as long as possible, with a mixture of letters, numbers, and symbols. (And keep a notebook so you don't have to memorize everything.)

Leslie Budewitz said...

"Then I learned that even the e-mail account of the Central Intelligence Agency director becomes an open book to the FBI if they obtain a subpoena from a federal prosecutor. They don’t have to serve a warrant on the owner of the account. With a subpoena, they can compel the service provider to give them access."

There are similar procedures in state law, generally called something like "investigative subpoenas." The prosecutor can issue a subpoena -- in some states, on his own; in others, only with court authorization -- then get records from banks, phone companies, hospitals, pharmacies, and on and on. The target may never know, unless criminal charges are filed, when the prosecutor must disclose what he's done.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
For whatever reason, I have always been paranoid about e-mails. My rule: Never put into an e-mail anything you don't want to be public knowledge.
As far as the FBI is concerned, they're probably smart enough to correlate all our "research activities" to the fact that we're writers (in my case, sci-fi thrillers, which are a bit nearer their concerns, maybe?). I can imagine Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum down in DC saying, "Oh, that's just Moore again figuring out X for one of his novels!"
Harassment and online security issues are other concerns. Anyone know the policies of gmail, for example? Does Google know all your e-mail content? It's surprising when I mention a generic product one day and the next time on the web a menu pops up referring to a brandname for that product...surprising and scary.
All the best,

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