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Beware the digital fingerprints you leave behind!

“…Loser:  People trying to have affairs in the digital age.  It’s official, you can’t get away with it!  THE HEAD OF THE CIA COULDN’T GET AWAY WITH IT!  For real.  For real… that flirting you’re doing in the chat section of ‘Words with Friends’?  It’s going to ruin your life!  Winner:  People who had affairs in the pre-digital age.  Man, you guys had it easy before internet and cell phones; in the sixties, if you could just keep the lipstick off your collars, you could have three families!”   - Seth Meyers, Saturday Night Live Weekend Update, 11/17/2012

The David Petraeus/Paula Broadwell affair is, to me, not really of great interest in the fact that an older, powerful public figure availed himself of the sexual attentions of someone younger, admiring, and significantly less powerful.  That’s hardly news in most high political circles; Henry Kissinger was famously quoted, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac” with good reason – if you’re more Gilbert Gottfried than Channing Tatum, no worries, all you have to do is be elected to high political office, get appointed to a Cabinet-level position, or become CEO of a Fortune 500 company and you’ll have your pick of admirers.  Of course, it’s wrong and his actions have surely caused hurt and humiliation for him and family, embarrassment to the CIA and the administration that appointed him, and has already raised serious questions about national security.  Pillow talk between some random congressman and his legislative intern about an upcoming farm appropriations bill is one thing; the implications when Mr. Can’t-Keep-It-In-His-Pants happens to be the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency are a little more chilling.

What is most fascinating to me is that once again the secret dalliance of someone who should have known better was so easily exposed, and in a most predictable way, through the digital fingerprints left behind.  By now it’s old news, and yet the same mistakes are being made over and over again.

Emails are not the only source of personal and professional downfall, however, nor are the highly-placed and powerful the only victims of digital self-indulgence.  Facebook (and similar social media), twitter, undiplomatic blog and comment-board postings, and even imprudent web searches can upend careers and relationships for any of us.  The carelessness of a CIA Director should certainly be of interest to all Americans.  That of the Average (or not-so-average) Joe, regardless of his position, probably not so much unless his carelessness has wider ranging societal impact.  But when the Average Joe happens to be a cop – and the digital dirt reflects on and impacts all in law enforcement – the rest of us then have a clear interest in learning about, understanding, and taking steps to protect ourselves, our colleagues, and our profession from future wounds.  

Just this week alone, two stories jumped out from the pages of that illustrate too many of us are still simply not getting it!  I know many regular readers become angry or frustrated when news articles highlighting the moral, legal, and ethical failures of fellow officers on this and other police-related websites, but I’ve never been of that mind.  As disappointing as they are to read, and as much as they will just confirm the worst suspicions of law enforcement’s harshest critics who’ll never realize these failures are in the news because they are behavioral aberrations, I truly believe they are instructive for the rest of us. 

The first story featured on to catch my attention was of that of a Greenfield, WI officer who, in the course of a theft investigation, allegedly began “sexting” (sending sexually explicit text messages) to a woman who was the target of the investigation (“Wisconsin Officer Accused of Sexting Suspect Resigns” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Nov 14, 2012).  Although neither traditional email or social media, two mediums most (although clearly not all) now recognize as two of the greatest danger zones for your more embarrassing digital fingerprints to be left, text messages still carry significant risk of their own.

The second article driving that very point home appeared just three days after the first, and detailed the allegations levied against two employees of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.  The opening paragraphs of the November 16th Los Angeles Times story (“Calif. Sheriff Probes Exchange of Bloodied face Photos”) read, as follows:

“After a violent confrontation with a teenage suspect, a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy took a photo of the man's bloodied face and texted it to Sgt. Eric Gonzalez, a friend who worked at Men's Central Jail.

A few hours later, Gonzalez responded by sending his own photo of a battered suspect: a jail visitor who had been kicked, punched and pepper-sprayed by deputies.

The man in Gonzalez's photo had two black eyes, one swollen shut, and blood streaming down his face.

"Looks like we did a better job," Gonzalez wrote his colleague. "Where's my beer big homie."

"Hahaha," the deputy responded, according to a text message exchange reviewed by The Times.”

Just… genius.  Of course, the comments are being characterized as “misconstrued” by Sgt Gonzalez, and maybe they have been, but will that matter in the court of public opinion?  Internal Affairs?  A judge and jury, where at least one of the prisoners has already decided to take the matter?

Our cell phones are maybe the most personal of personal computers; they are lifelines to family and friends, gateways to the whole of the information superhighway tucked comfortingly in our back pockets, keeping us more connected than ever.  Perhaps it’s because they are so ubiquitous we forget the danger they represent.  But no matter how they are transmitted, the digital dangers we all face really have nothing to do with the medium in which they are transmitted and everything to do with certain weaknesses almost all of us possess and must start learning to control.

In our next article in this two-part series, we’ll look at what those weaknesses are, how they might hurt us, and the steps necessary to counter them.  In the meantime, stay safe… on the street and online.