GettyImages_108126516.jpgBy now the General David Petraeus debacle has been all over the news.  We certainly don’t need to go over all the sordid details. Nor do we need to go over all the Internet security tips the case has made front page news.

A summary of the greatest tips should suffice:  

  • Big brother may indeed be watching. And according to  Google’s latest Transparency Report, the government may be watching you via Google far more often then you realize.
  • Digital privacy is 99 percent a fallacy—Hardly anything ever disappears. If you don’t want something found, don’t send it digitally, and don’t assume pressing “Delete” solves the problem.
  • Email is not a secure or anonymous medium of communication. The same IP address can be attached to various emails, even if they’re sent from different accounts, using different aliases. Once the IP address is identified, it can then be used to identify the sender. 
  • Communicating via drafts doesn’t avoid digital detection. In case you missed the details on this last point, it appears that Petraeus and his paramour Paula Broadwell took a page right out of the teenager and terrorist playbook: They shared an email account, and then sent messages to each other by writing drafts that the other would then access when they logged onto the shared account.  Sure, not sending the messages themselves certainly left a shorter digital trail. And it probably made it less likely that their spouses would stumble upon a message sent to a known email account. But it clearly failed to keep their missives completely undetectable. 

Does this mean that there is no hope of keeping your digital communications private? Well, no. Efforts can certainly be taken to keep conversations private. For instance:

  • Emails can be encrypted.
  • Services and devices, some of which are detailed here, can hide IP addresses.
  • Using different email providers for different communications also helps. Or, better yet, are disposable email addresses that self destruct after they’re read. They’re not foolproof, but they’re better than the old “Write a draft” trick. 

All of these are good tips, but what’s the real take-away that’s getting far less press coverage? That there is a tool that makes it far less likely that the content of the parties’ communications will be made public. Maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s a telephone

Be it a land line, a cell phone, or a disposable cell phone, telephones are far more secure than we give them credit for.

This surprise you? Yes, as we discussed in “Ping a Cell Phone, Cross a Line,” cell phones can be used to track down your location.  Yes, it’s possible to trace what numbers have been dialed on a phone—either through the phone itself or via a request for information from the phone company. And yes, the government can get a warrant to put a wiretap on someone’s phone. Luckily, though, there are a number of hoops that the government has to jump through to do that, so it’s not done casually.

However, it’s still far more likely thatthe CONTENT of a conversation over the phone will remain private and confidential than will anything sent digitally—be it an email, a message surreptitiously dropped in a digital drop box, or a text message. 

If you really want to keep something secret, first and foremost, don’t tell anyone, and definitely don’t write it down. If it’s a secret you share with another person, and you can’t tell them in person, for heaven’s sake don’t send an email or a text message about it.  Instead, do what folks did for decades, and what only recently seems so odd and foreign to us: Pick up a phone and make a call

Short of silence, a good old phone call, while antiquated in the eyes of some, is far better suited for private communications than most digital tools at our disposal.