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Metadata, not email, was the key to General Petraeus’ downfall

November 26, 2012
Author: Rich Turner

Metadata, not email, was the key to General Petraeus’ downfall

Plenty has already been written about General Petraeus’ abrupt fall from power, the result of an affair he had with a fellow staff member.  What’s interesting, however, is that his undoing hinged on metadata. The general and his paramour were discreet, and even set-up anonymous email accounts through which they could communicate freely.

It all might have worked, except that Mrs. Broadwell used the same anonymous account to begin emailing Jill Kelley with what Ms. Kelley claimed were “harassing” emails.We may never know the details – starting with why the inflammatory emails were sent in the first place and why the FBI became so deeply involved.   But what we do know is that the Petraeus/Broadwell affair was essentially collateral damage, not the actual subject of the inquiry, but something which surfaced nonetheless as the FBI investigated those emails.

Why?  Simply because emails contain more than just text – they contain metadata, which is difficult to alter.   In this case, that metadata inadvertently exposed a four-star general’s carefully hidden affair.  This is why the courts are so specific about preserving metadata and about producing it along with responsive emails for any given case – something archiving and information management systems can do particularly well.

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