The whole episode about General Patraeus’ affair and the unearthing of a lot of other related circumstances has caused quite an uproar, both offline and online. However, one specific lesson that digital activists are repeatedly citing is this: no matter how discretely you send an email, the security agencies may be able to trace it back to you.
General Patraeus made use of Gmail to carry out his extra-marital correspondence. He did deploy a few clever methods to stay off the radar, something he may have successfully accomplished had Paula Broadwell not blown his cover unintentionally.
Patraeus deployed the ‘save as drafts’ strategy in which no messages are sent or received, you simply save drafts in the inbox of an email address and both persons corresponding keep reading them. However, this method is also as safe as the obscurity of an email – if a law-enforcement agency or a hacker gets hold of the exact email id, he may be able to break in through many different hacking tools.
In this case, the cover was blown when Broadwell sent an email to Jill Kelley, a family friend of Patraeus’. The email was slightly threatening and Kelley reported it to FBI who was then able to easily secure a warrant from a court and get into the inbox of that anonymous account.
No matter what company hosts your email service, FBI or CIA need only a warrant from a court to break into it. And it has been seen times and again that this warrant is more of a formality than anything else – security agencies are able to get it at their whims.
And once a warrant is out, FBI will snoop around that anonymous email account. It will contain small traces of the location of its user – metadata that becomes attached to the emails sent or received. And that way, the exact position of the person who uses an anonymous email can be easily traced.
So no matter what you do, unless you are a high-end hacker, you can’t erase your tracks on the web. One thing or the other will inevitably give you out. General Patraeus was very well aware of the ways of FBI and CIA, yet even he wasn’t able to avoid this.