My Secret Strategy™ for Avoiding Petraeus-Style Email Pitfalls

By James Fallows

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/11/my-secret-strategy-for-avoiding-petraeus-style-email-pitfalls/265117/