Paula Broadwell, ex-mistress of disgraced former CIA chief David Petraeus, could have used several methods to hide her identity if she sent anonymous, threatening e-mails to Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, experts say.
But the FBI has many techniques available to trace such communications, said Shawn Henry, who retired in March as the FBI's executive assistant director in charge of all civil and criminal cyberinvestigation world-wide.
"Somewhere along the way, her IP address was captured," Henry said. An IP, or Internet protocol address, is a string of numbers unique to a particular computer or device on the Internet. With it, authorities can often track the identity of the person who sent an e-mail or visited a website.
Someone trying to remain anonymous can hide e-mails by routing them through different servers and using public computers that don't keep activity logs, he said. Broadwell may have thought she had done everything to hide her tracks, but people often make mistakes, leaving their e-mails traceable by investigators, he said.
The Associated Press, citing a law enforcement source who declined to be identified, reported that Petraeus and Broadwell apparently used a "drop-box" to conceal their e-mail traffic.
Rather than transmitting e-mails to the other's inbox, they composed at least some messages and left them in a draft folder or in an electronic drop-box, AP said. Then the other person could log onto the same account and read the draft e-mails, avoiding the creation of an e-mail trail that might be easier to trace.
The scandal has widened, with the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan under investigation for alleged "inappropriate communications" with Kelley.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta revealed that the Pentagon had begun an internal investigation into thousands of pages of e-mails from Gen. John Allen to Kelley. A senior Defense official described the e-mails as "flirtatious."
It's not clear if there was an effort to hide that e-mail trail, and Allen has denied wrongdoing.
Covering your online tracks can be time-consuming -- even for high-powered men who manage secret operations, said Janet Sternberg, a communication and media studies professor at Fordham University.
"Being anonymous would take so much trouble, you wouldn't have time to do the behavior you were trying to hide," said Sternberg, who says that almost all forms of electronic communication leave traces.
With cloud services, long e-mail chains, and more storage capabilities, e-mail inboxes and drop-boxes can contain thousands of pages of e-mails that users may think are gone but may simply be stored out of sight but within reach of searching authorities, experts said.
Orlando Scott-Cowley, an e-mail expert who works for Mimecast, a London-based cloud e-mail management vendor, said he stresses to clients that e-mail -- business and personal -- comes with limited privacy.
"When we talk to businesses about how they use e-mail, we teach users that e-mail isn't secure and that you shouldn't use it to receive or send confidential information," he said.
People have been trying to find a way to communicate secretly for years but have not really achieved that goal, said Paul Hill, a senior consultant at SystemExperts, a security consulting firm.
His advice: "Don't cheat on your spouse, and don't leave around all the evidence, because sooner or later someone is going to find it."
Contributing: Byron Acohido
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