Here’s the e-mail trick Petraeus and Broadwell used to communicate

November 12, 2012

General David Petraeus shakes hands with Paula Broadwell. (ISAF via Reuters)

CIA Director David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, a former military intelligence officer and his biographer, adopted a well-worn online trick, in an apparent attempt to keep their communications secret.

They wrote their "intimate messages" as draft e-mails in a shared Gmail account, according to the AP, allowing them to see one anothers' messages while leaving a much fainter data trail. When messages are sent and received, both accounts record the transmission as well as such metadata as the IP addresses on either end, something the two seemed to be seeking to avoid. 

Petraeus and Broadwell apparently used a trick, known to terrorists and teen-agers alike, to conceal their email traffic, one of the law enforcement officials said.

Rather than transmitting emails to the other's inbox, they composed at least some messages and instead of transmitting them, left them in a draft folder or in an electronic "dropbox," the official said. Then the other person could log onto the same account and read the draft emails there. This avoids creating an email trail that is easier to trace.

The trick has achieved notoriety as a tactic of terrorists who are rightly wary of espionage.

It's the sort of measure you take if you fear there's a risk that someone will look in on you. And it's been around for quite some time, which may be why the FBI investigators were not fooled by it.

A January 2005 PBS special on al-Qaeda identified the tactic as one of several "terrorist tricks," alongside logging in from public Internet cafes. The trick is also used in a 2008 spy film "Traitor."

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Max Fisher · November 12, 2012