My Secret Strategy™ for Avoiding Petraeus-Style Email Pitfalls

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I have a foolproof plan to make sure you never suffer the email-borne disaster that has recently befallen David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell.

It's a plan so effective and perfect that it doesn't even involve any adjustment in personal behavior, standards of marital fidelity, or anything else of the sort. My plan recognizes that down through the eons people have behaved more or less the same way, and they always will.

You can send me a check or money order for $99.95, care of the Atlantic's head office, and I will share the secrets of my plan. Or -- what the hell, everything is free on the Internet -- you just click the link below and read the Secret Strategy™ after the jump.

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Here is the secret plan:

Never put anything in an email message, to anyone, that would cause you serious problems if it fell into the wrong hands.

That's the plan™. All of it. Never do this. Ever.

 I don't mean the run-of-the-mill minor difficulties that can arise if personal details we have to send by email were exposed: Credit card numbers, financial details, problems we're having with weight or some other medical issue, embarrassing confessions we make to friends.

I mean things that really can make trouble. Harsh criticism of people we work with -- or, worse, work for. Behind-the-back snark about people who think we're friends. And clues of any sort about behavior that could make trouble if exposed -- for instance, if you are having an affair that you would rather your spouse and work mates didn't know about.

"Purloined" letters and misdirected correspondence have been a source of mischief and sorrow through the pre-computer age. For instance: the tragedy in Ian McEwan's Atonement turns on just such an episode. (Yes, the book was written in the computer age, but it is set in an earlier era.)

But email makes everything different:
  • It can so easily be forwarded and sent where it was not meant to go;
  • It can so easily be mis-addressed, whether to "Reply All" or to someone mistakenly brought up in the auto-complete field;
  • It can so easily be stored;
  • Perhaps most important, it can so easily be searched. You'd spend days riffling through a stack of old correspondence. You can find juicy things in an email trove in seconds.

I am careful about triple-checking the To: and CC: fields before I sent any email message. I have enabled Gmail's "ooops" system, that gives you a few seconds to un-send any message you sent in haste.

But before I put anything in an email, I ask myself: what would happen if the person I would least like to see this message, sees it. For any judgments / opinions / criticisms that don't pass that test, it's time for the in-person chat or the phone call. Who ever imagined that the telephone, which of course can be tapped or intercepted, would seem a far more "secure" and "private" form of conversation than the email message. But that is how it is.

Never put anything in email that would cause you serious problems if shared or publicized. That's it. I'll be looking for my $99.95.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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