How to Avoid Colin Powell's Email Embarrassments

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell has been back in the news lately, albeit unintentionally, thanks to the publication of some embarrassing email messages.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell in Istanbul in 2009. Credit: Thomas Koch/Shutterstock

(Image credit: Former Secretary of State Colin Powell in Istanbul in 2009. Credit: Thomas Koch/Shutterstock)

First, House Democrats released an email Powell sent to Hillary Clinton at the beginning of her own stint as secretary of state in 2009, telling her how to evade State Department data-security rules. ("I got around it all by not saying much and not using systems that captured the data," he apparently said.)

Then the DC Leaks website, possibly a Russian intelligence tool, published more recent emails in which Powell disparaged Clinton as "greedy" and "sleazy," her husband Bill Clinton as sleeping with "bimbos," Donald Trump as a "national disgrace," former Vice President Dick Cheney as a "scary idiot," and the Republican Party a "reality show." (A Powell aide confirmed to CNN that the emails were genuine.)

The New York Times reported Friday (Sept. 16) that the Powell emails have politicians, business executives and media figures in Washington scrambling to delete their own potentially embarrassing old email messages. One unnamed network-news anchor reportedly deleted his entire account.

So how can you avoid ending up in Colin Powell's situation and having strangers read your email? It's not that difficult. All you have to do is follow a few simple guidelines. (Caveat: We don't know how Powell's account was broken into, but our money is on a weak password.)

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First, assume that everything you write will be public someday. Ever notice that the private letters of famous politicians, writers and artists often end up being published after those people are dead? Pretend you're one of those famous people, and then assume your private correspondence — emails, instant messages, texts, Twitter direct messages, Facebook postings — will be published while you're still alive.

Second, don't be lazy about passwords. You have different passwords for your Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Apple and Instagram accounts, right? No? Well, get cracking — make up a new password for each account, and make sure it's a lot harder to guess than "qwerty123."  Here's how to select super-secure passwords.

Third, turn on two-factor authentication, everywhere. There's no excuse for not activating this wonderful feature, which makes it much harder for anyone to break into your account. Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo all offer it, and the only inconvenience is occasionally (not always) having to input a code sent to your smartphone to log into an online account.

Our friend Graham Cluley has some advice that we didn't think of: Check your webmail accounts' settings to make sure that none of them are secretly forwarding messages to another account, and no other person has been granted authority to read your emails.

Finally, write for posterity: If you've got to insult someone behind his or her back, make sure your insult is so witty and true that future readers will be impressed instead of shocked. That might end up being the case with Powell, whose private depictions of fellow Washington insiders — the best have been collected by CBS News — are funny, confirm what most people already suspected and reveal an intriguing new side to the normally buttoned-up retired general.