We watched an arguable military hero, General David Petraeus, fall from grace over the past week based on an affair he had with another Army officer. But wait, didn’t he retire and take a civilian position? Did he break any laws? Did he share any classified information? Oh, that’s right…no, no and no.
This incident raises a great number of questions about our privacy and how far agencies can dig into our electronic conversations that never go away. We’ve never lived in an age where so much is said by so many that stays in a permanent record. And this isn’t just a problem for consenting adults…there are questions about tweets sent by children and whether that can impact their later life when they apply to college or take their first professional positions. How much can we be held to task for everything we’ve ever said?
No more than a soap opera
As the details of the Petraeus Affair come out it sounds increasingly sketchy. There was a woman in Florida who complained about anonymous emails that at first were described as threatening, but are now merely “provocative”. Jill Kelley, the Florida woman, was able to get a friend from the FBI in Tampa to start up in investigation but now it turns out he was sending her shirtless photos (isn’t anyone aware of electronic records??) and was taken off the case. When the agent thought the investigation was stalling, he contacted his congressman to drive it to the head of the FBI. Wow.
In the meantime, the investigation has ‘swallowed up’ another Army general…coincidentally Petraeus’ replacement in Afghanistan. General Allen was swapping his own indiscreet emails with Ms. Kelley. Who are these people? Why should we care?
What is a “social ambassador” to an Air Force Base? A Washington Post article says, “Kelley was a ‘self-appointed’ go-between for Central Command officers with Lebanese and other Middle Eastern government officials. Just that part alone gives me a headache.
How did we get here?
More importantly, how did this ever become something for the Department of Defense, the CIA, or the New York Times? These are people behaving poorly, for sure, but we have yet to hear of any criminal acts. This is the poster child for the strange new ways of technology and should concern us all.
Paul Ohm, writing for the Harvard Business Review, talks about our rapidly increasing accumulation of historical information and says:
In my work, I’ve argued that these databases will grow to connect every individual to at least one closely guarded secret. This might be a secret about a medical condition, family history, or personal preference. It is a secret that, if revealed, would cause more than embarrassment or shame; it would lead to serious, concrete, devastating harm. And these companies are combining their data stores, which will give rise to a single, massive database. I call this the Database of Ruin. Once we have created this database, it is unlikely we will ever be able to tear it apart.
Ohm’s warning seemed a little overblown when I first read his piece, but in light of this story, it isn’t at all.
Slowing it down
The Petraeus situation is a great example of why we need to slow things down and become more deliberate about how we access personal information and how we deal with what we find. Maybe there needs to be new regulations controlling how and when the FBI can be involve itself and how it behaves when it has information.
Maybe we shouldn’t be storing so much information for so long.
In the meantime, humorist Andy Borowitz hits an ironic note in his New Yorker farce about the CIA publishing a new guide, How to Tell if You’re Involved In the Petraeus Scandal. In his inimitable way, he jokes, “The C.I.A. rushed to produce the brochure after it became clear that as many as one in three Americans may have some involvement in the Petraeus affair.” We clearly don’t…but I’ll bet more than one in three Americans have said something at some point in time they wouldn’t want to have dug up.
As humans, we’re vulnerable to a database that never gets old and never forgets.