The General Petraeus Scandal: A Cyberlaw Lesson

November 19, 2012

File photo of then U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus at event in the East Room of the White HouseThere are many lessons to be learned from the scandal that has tainted the reputations of General David Petraeus and General John Allen.  One of those lessons is recognition of the scope and power of investigations based on cyberlaw claims.

The chain of events that eventually led to this public scandal began with a claim of cyberstalking.  By taking her allegations that she was the target of threatening online messages to federal law enforcement authorities, Jill Kelley inspired an investigation involving examination and tracing of electronic mail and other online messages.

That cyber-investigation led authorities to Paula Broadwell.  As the investigation expanded, electronic evidence connected her with General Petraeus.  That evidence set the stage for disclosure of the Petraeus scandal.

At the same time, the cyberstalking inquiry brought all of Jill Kelley’s electronic messages under review.  That examination resulted in identification of the connection between Kelley and General Allen.  Jill Kelley’s cyberstalking claim led authorities to discover her apparent relationship with General Allen.

This case illustrates the fact that law enforcement investigations based on claims involving electronic evidence are often very wide-ranging.  It is virtually impossible to anticipate where those investigations might lead.

The case also shows that parties who may be involved in cyber-investigations are likely to be totally unaware of their involvement until those investigations have reached advanced stages.

Among the lessons to be learned is the need for caution before requesting a cyber-investigation.  By requesting help from law enforcement authorities you should assume that you are inviting them into your entire digital history.

Cyber-investigations, once launched, take on lives of their own.  This can be like opening Pandora’s Box.  Before inviting authorities into your electronic domain, assume that all of your secrets contained in that digital material will be discovered, and plan accordingly.

This case also illustrates the importance of effectively managing the electronic communications and records you create.  The more extensive that record, the more likely that your digital history will be accessed as part of cyber-investigations of which you are unaware.

Effective management of the digital record requires prudent oversight of all of your electronic communications and documents.  Substantial care should be exercised before you create new communications and records.  Once created, it is important that you remain aware of the content of all of those materials and that you recognize their potential impact.

Although we can not fully anticipate the direction or scope of cyber-investigations, we can act to reduce the risk that our electronic records will be a source of embarrassment or legal exposure.