Petraeus investigation brings light to email privacy - WKRN News 2

Petraeus investigation brings light to email privacy

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -

David Petraeus left his job as the head of the CIA amid scandal, and email appears to be his undoing.

The FBI began looking into the emails of the highly decorated general in a harassment case turned security breach turned infidelity discovery.

"Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, adultery is a crime. It's a serious offense," said Attorney and Reservist James Mackler. "It can subject a soldier to dishonorable discharge, to up to a year in prison."

Mackler currently works with Bone McAllester Norton law firm in Nashville. He has practiced law for 15 years, four of those years spent in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps.

He told Nashville's News 2, all government-owned property is subject to monitoring to ensure national security and appropriate use of government resources.

However, non-military email accounts could easily be under the same scrutiny.

"Civilian rights are the same as military rights in the sense that they're based on the Fourth Amendment right to privacy," Mackler said.  "The real question or differential there is that reasonable expectation of privacy."

Don't expect privacy in the workplace.

Much like the military, company-owned property is subject to monitoring. Most companies provide employees with a written policy stating as such.

Personal accounts offer only slightly more privacy.

"The average person sending an email from a private account to another private account can feel pretty safe that no one is looking at that account," said Mackler, "that no one's going to try to access that account, and that if someone does want to access that account, they're going to need a court order."

Privacy rights change if you access your personal email account through your work computer.  In that case, company management could see activity in web-based accounts such as Yahoo, Gmail, or Hotmail.

Outside access to personal email accounts can also extend to deleted or draft emails.

Patraeus and his love interest, Paula Broadwell, communicated through "draft" emails found in a Gmail account.

"Even something that we don't send is sitting on a server somewhere, whether it's a Google server or someone else's server," said Mackler.

Electronic mail systems typically retain messages in memory, even after they have been deleted.

"If the government has a reason to look for that, they're going to find it," Mackler added.

Mackler has seen electronic communication, including cell phone calls, emails, and texts, play a large role in criminal and civil cases in recent years. He is among critics who argue privacy laws have not kept up with changing forms of communication and offers a warning to email users.  

"You should expect that anything you send by email is always going to be available to somebody at some point in the future if they're looking hard enough for it," he said, "so you should never put anything in email that you absolutely want to make sure that no one's ever going to see."

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 is currently the primary e-privacy law.

For more information on workplace monitoring, contact your federal legislators.

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