Photo: CNN screenshot
The way the FBI figured out that David Petraeus’s biographer Paula Broadwell was the one harassing Tampa Bay resident and Petraeus confidante Jill Kelley is pretty cool.It’s also educational for anyone who imagines that they can maintain anonymity these days.
The identification of Paula Broadwell as the harasser, you will recall, led to the discovery of the Petraeus-Broadwell affair that has since claimed the job of the former general and CIA director, caused Broadwell to go into hiding, and opened the kimono on a bizarro world in which active military generals and FBI agents appear to devote considerable waking hours to emailing and IMing with attractive “liaisons” who host massive military parties at their houses (one. anyway).
Michael Isikoff and Bob Sullivan of NBC News explain how the FBI did it.
Broadwell and Petraeus were both trained in intelligence. The method they used to communicate with each other was one perfected by terrorists. They created anonymous email accounts that they both had access to. Instead of actually sending emails to each other, the sender merely saved the email as a draft, and the recipient then checked the “Draft” folder, found the email, read it, and deleted it. This method is apparently quite popular with al Qaeda and teenagers who don’t want their parents to know what they’re up to.
When Broadwell began to get jealous of another woman in Petraeus’s life, however, she threw caution and her intelligence training to the winds.
She created new anonymous Gmail or Yahoo Mail accounts for herself. And then, while travelling around the country on a tour to promote her book about Petraeus, she used these accounts to send emails to the Tampa-based woman, Jill Kelley, telling her to “back off” Petraeus.
Some of these emails, say Isikoff and Sullivan, detailed the “comings and goings” of various military brass from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. These details freaked out the FBI, who thought that there was a spy at MacDill or within the military. So, the FBI launched an investigation.
It took a while for the FBI to figure out Broadwell was the one sending the emails. But the process was relatively simple, and, eventually, the conclusion became inescapable.
The FBI first researched the IP addresses from which the emails were sent. Depending on which email accounts were used, this information would either have been included in the email header (Yahoo Mail and Outlook) or available via sub-poena from Google (Gmail).
Once the FBI had the IP addresses, it was able to narrow down their geographic location, homing in on a particular city or hotel.
As soon as it had the names of specific establishments, the FBI likely sub-poenaed information like hotel guest lists.
Then it cross-checked names until the name of one Paula Broadwell came up.
The bottom line, according to privacy research Chris Soghoian? In this age of electronic communication, anonymity is extremely hard to preserve.
“We see this again and again. We saw it with the Anonymous (hacker) arrests last year. The lesson for the rest of us here us you have to go through a lot of steps to maintain anonymity, and you only have to screw up once,” said Soghoian. “The FBI was able to pierce the veil of anonymity even for someone who’s been trained. The government only has to get one clue. You have to be successful 100 per cent of the time (when trying to hide).”
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