In the Mobile Internet Age, There’s No Privacy for the Powerful

Nov 20, 2012

The career of yet another very powerful man has been derailed by a combination of “hubris and the illusion of privacy,” as Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post wrote earlier this week.

David Petraeus, a four-star general who once commanded the coalition forces in Iraq, recently stepped down as director of the CIA after an FBI investigation into harassing emails sent by Petraeus’ biographer Paula Broadwell to another woman uncovered an affair between the general and Broadwell.

And every couple of days it seems more people are getting ensnared in this scandal: Gen. John Allen, leader of the troops in Afghanistan, is now also being investigated for allegedly exchanging “inappropriate” emails with Jill Kelley, an Air Force base liaison and the woman who received the emails from Broadwell that started this whole fiasco.

It’s mind-boggling that after the parade of high-profile disgrace and embarrassment that most recently featured former US Rep. Anthony Weiner (tweeting racy photos), former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer (cavorting with high-end escort), former US Sen. John Ensign (dallying with a married staffer) and former US Sen. John Edwards (cheating on sick wife with campaign videographer) these powerful men still don’t get it.

Apparently, the power of a high government position is an intoxicant that not only makes them feel invulnerable – it also makes them forget that in these times of constant connectedness we give up privacy for the sake of convenience. Odd that, of all people, this would slip the mind of a CIA director.

In a January 2010 interview with Big Think, Spitzer himself cited hubris, a sense of entitlement and adrenaline – and ultimately, stupidity – as the reasons for an epic fail that cost him the governorship and humiliated his family.

And in the Petraeus case, it looks like there’s plenty more yarn to unravel. Now investigators are looking at whether any sensitive information was compromised because of the affair and whether the CIA director’s sudden resignation had anything to do with his upcoming testimony for an inquiry into the Sept. 11 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.

All because of a single inquiry into a few emails about a personal romantic drama.

The takeaway: this is the Internet age, gentlemen (and some women too). Everything – emails, texts, tweets, cellphone calls and online posts – is traceable. If you misbehave while in a position of power, you will get caught sooner or later and your reputation, your personal brand, will be destroyed. Not only that, with everyone able to follow the 24-hour news cycle on mobile devices, your PR crisis will be known to the country, and in some cases the world, in the blink of an eye.

And in a country as obsessed with, and yet so publicly puritanical about, sex, you most likely will have to commit career suicide in order to quiet the indignant howling of political rivals who will probably go on to have sex scandals of their own. That’s just how these things seem to work time and again.

So will they ever learn to keep it in their pants for the sake of their reputations? History tells us that won’t be happening any time soon.

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