Bloomberg View: The Abiding Perils of E-Mail

In the Petraeus affair, a reminder of how not to keep secrets
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Perhaps the most vexing aspect of the fall of General David Petraeus is why, decades into the popular e-mail experience, a master of intelligence and spycraft thought his romantic e-mails could remain secret.

Let’s state for the record a fairly basic observation: E-mail leaves a virtually permanent, indelible record. You can empty your trash, you can bury your laptop, you can create fake accounts, but chances are there’s a server somewhere with a twin version of your correspondence. It’s waiting in the shadows to come back and haunt you like a ghost in the machine.

We remember not to drop the radio in the bathtub; we remember not to drink gasoline; most of the time we remember not to lick the pole on the chairlift. Yet we cannot remember that even the most deeply buried e-mail is probably findable.

It’s easy enough to hazard a few guesses as to the reason, of course. In the span of human invention, e-mail is a relatively new technology (compared with, say, the telephone). It’s also fast. Maybe it’s not as fast as Twitter, instant messaging, texting, and other, more recent jack-rabbit technologies that have lapped it. But e-mail is still maybe too fast for our brains to catch up with. The message came to us in a flash, we responded quickly, therefore it will vanish. We think it’s as ephemeral as the transaction.

Maybe speed also eats away at our superego. The desire to respond, to emote, can be so fierce that sometimes we do it before thinking. And once sent, an e-mail can rarely be called back. This can be a problem. Though we put a man on the moon, though we moved several space shuttles over bumpy roads to museums, we still haven’t managed to invent an all-powerful e-mail recall button. It’s worth remembering, too, that those fantastic free e-mail services many of us use are free for a reason. Data mining, pop-up ads, and goodness knows what other digital strings are attached that we ignore, blinded by convenience and the right price.

We hope Petraeus, his family, and all those involved in this dark and unhappy tangle find a way to heal. We also hope that the CIA weathers this moment. But it’s possible that Petraeus has presented the rest of us with what the therapeutic industrial complex calls a supremely teachable moment. E-mail is a fantastic tool. It’s revolutionized our world. Just don’t expect it to keep your secrets.

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