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Why smart people do dumb things online

Mike Elgan | Nov. 19, 2012
David Petraeus, a brilliant man, did the dumbest thing imaginable with his email. He trusted it with his secrets. Mike Elgan offers other options for keeping private things private online.

David Petraeus is probably the last person you might have expected to wreck his career with an email scandal.

Petraeus is smart: He graduated in the top 5% of his class at West Point and went on to earn a Ph.D.

Petraeus has self-control: His self-discipline was " legendary," according to Time Magazine.

And Petraeus knows what he's doing: During his time as a four-star general and as director of the CIA, he acquired an intimate knowledge of how easily email can be hacked.

And that's why it's so incredible that even Petraeus did the dumbest thing imaginable when it came to his email: He trusted it with his secrets.


Two limitations of the human mind

The Petraeus fiasco involves a sordid and tawdry " love pentagon" with five very high-level professionals flirting, harassing, investigating, gossiping, sexting and more.

It also involves issues of national security, inter-agency rivalry, legal boundaries around surveillance and more.

But I'm not concerned about any of that. What I care about is Gmail.

This whole mess came to light -- and careers and, probably, marriages were ruined, and the government was shamed -- because of evidence harvested from Google's Gmail.

Everybody should know -- and CIA directors should definitely know -- that cloud-based email services are not safe places to put things you don't want anyone to see.

In fact, Petraeus used an old trick he probably learned from Al Qaeda militants.

The trick was this: Instead of sending email to his biographer/girlfriend, Petraeus simply kept messages in a draft folder without sending them. Both parties had the email address, and simply logged in and read the drafts.


Well, probably. But the reason Petraeus did such a dumb thing is the same reason why half the celebrities in Hollywood end up with naked cellphone pictures on the Internet, the same reason kids entering the workforce increasingly don't get hired because of some online photo or comment, the same reason countless families argue over things posted or emailed, and the same reason people get fired every day over things they say online.

That reason is a fundamental flaw in human nature, which is that we think our potential audience is the same as our intended audience.

When teenagers post ill-advised pictures or comments on Facebook, they're thinking about a small number of friends reading it. While they're thinking of those people, their brains prevent them from thinking about grandma, or the teacher they friended, or the friend who copies the content and broadcasts it publicly, or the future HR manager vetting job candidates.

The writer H.P. Lovecraft talked about "the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents." He described the experience of this limitation poetically: "We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far."


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