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How Metadata Brought Down CIA Boss David Petraeus

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David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell

Former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus with his biographer Paula Broadwell.

Credit: Reuters

Metadata, such as where and when someone logged into an email account, can be more valuable than the content of the emails themselves because it often is not protected by privacy laws, notes University of Waterloo computer scientist Ian Goldberg.

For example, former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency director David Petraeus was brought down by metadata, which is not covered by the Stored Communications Act. Although the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was monitoring an email account that was reportedly the source of some harassing emails, it found a series of Internet Protocol addresses recorded when a user logged in from hotel Wi-Fi networks. By cross-referencing those logins with hotel guest lists, the FBI ascertained that Paula Broadwell was the only one who could have logged in. A second account, in which Broadwell and Petraeus corresponded about their affair by saving messages in the drafts folder, also was linked to Broadwell in this way.

The drawback with using any Internet service anonymously is that once an email address can be tied to where it was accessed, investigators can then hunt for credit card transactions or signals from a cell phone tower to place a specific user there at that time, notes the American Civil Liberties Union's Chris Soghoian.

From New Scientist
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Abstracts Copyright © 2012 Information Inc., Bethesda, Maryland, USA


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