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Keeping hackers out of personal email

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WASHINGTON — In light of the Gmail-related scandal involving former CIA chief David Petraeus, one has to wonder if, given the relative ease by which an intelligence agency — or just about anybody — can break into a private email account, government officials entrusted with the nation’s most sensitive information should be allowed to keep personal email accounts while in office.

True, Petraeus’ email was never actually broken into or hacked by the FBI. Agents gained access to his naughty notes by monitoring Paula Broadwell’s email and then asking Broadwell if she was having an affair with Petraeus. She fessed up and gave them access to her computer and with it, even more of his emails. Nevertheless, the very revelation that our nation’s top spy used at least one relatively unsecure Gmail account has prompted people to raise the above question.

I recall being surprised whenever one of Petraeus’ retired predecessors would reply to my emails from an AOL email account or something equally pedestrian. It just seems a little odd that people with access to incredible secrets use the same email services the rest of us do.

If hacked, these emails could reveal plenty about the personal lives of their owners who hold high office. Hackers probably wouldn’t find state secrets, but they could find plenty of personal information - travel plans, info about friends and family, online purchases, bank accounts, the list goes on and on. As Google knows for business purposes, a look at someone’s email can paint a pretty valuable picture of who they are. Google uses this information to sell ads tailored to your interests. You can imagine what spies would do with it.

Still, there are questions about what type of service officials could use — perhaps something like Hushmail or TigerText or some NSA-furnished email — and how effective it would be. Would these texts and emails be monitored by the FBI for intrusions? Even if top U.S. government officials use secure services for their personal emails and texts, is it realistic to assume that their personal information could be kept safe if their acquaintances are using unsecure email and texting services?

One noted IT security expert familiar with the intelligence world that I spoke with said that while it’s surprising that officials such as CIA directors use Gmail and similar email clients, it would be challenging to develop a secure method for them to transmit private information.

"I don’t really think the government has the ability to deploy something like that, and one of the reasons why people use these [private] systems is they don’t want that same level of monitoring going on with their private emails that they would get under any government supplied system," said the expert.

The expert recommended that CIA directors and the like take a page from private business executives’ playbook and use Gmail’s two-step authentication system, which is, according to him, much more secure than competitors such as Yahoo (the result of a major hack Google suffered in 2009), and then hire an outside company to scan their laptops, smartphones and tablets for intrusions every few days. "You tell ‘em, ‘Don’t log into the hotel PC, don’t log into the airport kiosk, none of that kind of stuff.’ "

These frequent scans are vitally important since they will be one of the only ways to protect against spear-phishing attacks by foreign intelligence agencies that have hijacked the email accounts of a VIP’s acquaintances.

At the end of the day, the expert reiterated, public officials should simply keep sensitive info out of their email.

"What could somebody find if they just logged into your email one day," he said. "Is your social security number in any of the emails, your tax return? I go through periodically and I just purge everything I can find."

One government official who seems to get this is Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who doesn’t use email, partially out of concerns about its vulnerability to hacking.


Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. Previously, he edited’s publication Defense Tech and was associate editor of DoDBuzz.


- Foreign Policy


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