Web

Petraeus’s mail client – not Gmail – likely behind affair bust

Gmail location data not to blame for Petraeus outing

As you surely have heard by now, David Petraeus, former commander of the Afghanistan war, resigned as Director of the CIA on Friday after the FBI inadvertently discovered that he was having an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. You may have also heard that Petraeus’s philandering was uncovered thanks to “Gmail location data.” Problem is, that’s not entirely accurate.

Petraeus’s undoing, the Cliffs Notes version

In case you’re not yet up to speed with this whole Petraeus thing, here’s a quick overview of what happened: Last summer, the FBI received a report from a woman named Jill Kelley, 37, an “influential” person in Tampa, Florida, which is home to the U.S. military’s Central Command (CENTCOM), that someone was sending her “harassing” emails. The mysterious sender was telling Kelley to “back off” and “stay away” from an unnamed man. Kelley wanted the FBI to find out if a cybercrime was being committed.

Because Kelley was a friend of members of the law enforcement agency, the FBI obliged: It found that the emails were sent from an anonymous Gmail address, which they eventually confirmed belonged to Broadwell and her husband, who live in North Carolina. The FBI then gained access to Broadwell’s other email accounts, and found sexually explicit emails coming from another anonymous Gmail user, who they would later discover was Petraeus himself.

From the Wall Street Journal:

[The FBI] learned that Ms. Broadwell and Mr. Petraeus had set up private Gmail accounts to use for their communications, which included explicit details of a sexual nature, according to U.S. officials. But because Mr. Petraeus used a pseudonym, agents doing the monitoring didn’t immediately uncover that he was the one communicating with Ms. Broadwell.

By late summer, after the monitoring of Ms. Broadwell’s emails uncovered the link to Mr. Petraeus, prosecutors and agents alerted senior officials at FBI and the Justice Department, including Mr. Holder, U.S. officials say. The investigators never monitored Mr. Petraeus’s email accounts, the officials say.

Metadata = megascrewed

The reason the FBI was able to figure out the identities of Broadwell and Petraeus was, at least in part, due to so-called metadata that is embedded in every email we send. The information contained in email metadata differs depending on which service is used; however, most email metadata includes sender email address, recipient email address, date and time that the email was sent, and IP addresses associated with sending and delivery of the email.

It is this last bit of info – IP addresses – that would have told the FBI where the various damning emails were coming from.

Outlook, not Gmail

This is what led Wired, Gizmodo, and (at least at first) The Atlantic to run stories implicating “Gmail location data” as the key detail that led to Petraeus’s downfall. But here’s the thing: Gmail does not display a sender’s IP address in its email metadata when an email is sent through Gmail’s website. And it hasn’t done so for at least the past four years – meaning it didn’t do so when Broadwell and Petraeus were sending each other secret love letters. (The Atlantic later updated its article to put less of the onus on Gmail.)

To confirm this, we sent ourselves a number of emails from various email addresses, starting with an email from and to the same Gmail account. We then took a look at the email “header,” the part of the message that contains all the juicy forensics data, but which is usually automatically hidden from most email users through the email user interface.

To access the header of any Gmail email, simply click the down arrow icon that appears next to the “reply” arrow in any Gmail message. Then click “Show Original.” This will give you that email message in its raw form, with the email header taking up a big chunk of space at the top, before the actual message.

Gmail to Gmail

Now, as you can see in the image below, the only IP address listed in the header of our email sent from Gmail’s website is 10.112.138.165. This is not your author’s IP address; it is the IP address of a Google server. In other words, when you send an email through Gmail.com, Google acts as a proxy, effectively hiding your location.

Gmail Metadata

If, on the other hand, you send an email from a Gmail address – but rather than use Gmail.com, you do so through an email client like Microsoft Outlook – then your actual IP address will be added to the email header, thus allowing the FBI (or anyone else) to easily find out the physical location from which that email originated.

The same is true for Gmail emails sent from Apple’s Mail client for OS X, as well as Mozilla’s Thunderbird email client.

Below is what the email header sent from your author’s Gmail address to the same address looks like when using Outlook instead of Gmail.com to send an email:

petraeus gmail affair outlook test header

The blurred out parts of the text is your author’s home IP address (plus local Internet service provider info). And the reason it’s blurred out is because anyone could type that IP address into a wide variety of Web tools, and instantly discover with terrifying accuracy where your author is currently writing in his dog hair-covered sweatpants.

The only real question that remains for Petraeus now – at least as far as his email habits go – is whether he’s a Mac or a PC. Given his extensive government service, we’re going to go with PC, which would likely mean that Microsoft Outlook is to blame for his secret getting out.

What this means for you

Most of us are never going to hold a high-level position in the U.S. government, nor will we be investigated by the FBI. So the differences between sending a Gmail email using Gmail.com or a desktop mail client are probably not that important. If, however, you want to be particularly covert in the emails you send, then your best bet is to use the Gmail website for your email communications.

Movies & TV

Marvel’s streaming Loki series gets a plot summary and a showrunner

A Rick & Morty writer will oversee Marvel's Loki series for Disney Plus. Tom Hiddleston is expected to reprise his role for the show, while the series' premise offers a few hints as to how Loki might return from the dead.
Web

Gmail adds lots of new functionality to its right-click menu

Right-click on an email in Gmail and the list of actions is pretty limited. That's about to change, though, as Google has just announced it's expanding the list of options to make its email client that little bit more useful.
Gaming

One-armed Marine veteran wins ‘Apex Legends’ match using his feet

Twitch user ToeYouUp may have had one of his arms amputated, but that hasn't stopped the veteran from competing in his favorite games. He recently won an Apex Legends match using his feet.
Smart Home

Alexa, dim the lights: How voice assistants can help with Valentines Day

If you have an Amazon Echo or Google Home device, you can sweep your sweetheart off his or her feet this Valentine's Day with these romantic, mood-setting tips. Your sweetie will be impressed.
Computing

Use one of these password managers to help protect yourself online

The internet can be a scary place, especially if you don't have a proper password manager. This guide will show you the best password managers you can get right now, including both premium and free options.
Computing

YouTube beats Apple, Netflix as the most trusted brand by millennials

The popular video sharing website YouTube climbed up in an annual Mblm study, moving up from third place in 2018 and coming ahead of both Apple and Netflix in final 2019 rankings. 
Mobile

Is the 5G spectrum harmful to our health? Experts say, 'Don't freak out'

There's plenty of consumer anxiety about radiofrequency (RF) radiation, specifically around millimeter waves (mmWave) used on 5G networks, but is it based in reality? We asked the FDA to give us its official view on the subject.
Computing

Russia will ‘unplug’ from the internet as part of a cyber-defense test

Authorities across Russia are planning on unplugging the country from the global internet as part of a test of its cyber defenses. The disconnection will briefly keep all internet traffic inside the country.
Gaming

These are the coolest games you can play on your Google Chrome browser right now

Not only is Google Chrome a fantastic web browser, it's also a versatile gaming platform that you can access from just about anywhere. Here are a few of our favorite titles for the platform.
Computing

Tired of paying a monthly fee for Word? The best Microsoft Office alternatives

Looking for a competent word processor that isn't Microsoft Word? Thankfully, the best alternatives to Microsoft Office offer robust features, expansive compatibility, and an all-too-familiar aesthetic. Here are our favorites.
Computing

File Transfer Protocol explained: What FTP is and what it does

FTP stands for "File Transfer Protocol," and it's used to transfer files online. Most internet users don't need it, but web developers use it constantly. Here's what FTP is, how it works, and how you can get started using it.
Computing

Make a GIF of your favorite YouTube video with these great tools

Making a GIF from a YouTube video is easier today than ever, but choosing the right tool for the job isn't always so simple. In this guide, we'll teach you how to make a GIF from a YouTube video with our two favorite online tools.
Computing

Lose the key for your favorite software? These handy tools can find it for you

Missing product keys getting you down? We've chosen some of the best software license and product key finders in existence, so you can locate and document your precious keys on your Windows or MacOS machine.
Computing

From beautiful to downright weird, check out these great dual-monitor wallpapers

Multitasking with two monitors doesn't necessarily mean you need to split your screens with two separate wallpapers. From beautiful to downright weird, here are our top sites for finding the best dual-monitor wallpapers for you.