Someone in the group suggested a blog post on email retention. It’s a good topic, because it tracks the co-evolution of technology and process.
Back in the day, storage was expensive – relative to the cost of sending an email, anyway. To save space, people would routinely delete emails when they were no longer relevant.
Then storage got cheap, and even though attachments got bigger and bigger, storing email ceased to be a big deal. By the late 1990s, one of my colleagues put it to me that the time you might spend deciding whether or not to delete something already cost more than the cost of storing it forever. I have an archive copy of every email I’ve sent or received – in professional or personal capacities – since about 1996 (even most or all of the spam).
Happily, one other technology helped with making email retention worthwhile: indexing. This, too, is predicated on having enough storage to store the index, and having enough CPU power to build the index. All of this we now have.
However, a third force enters the fray: lawyers started discovering the value of emails as evidence (even if it’s rubbish as evidence, needing massive amounts of corroboration if it is not to be forged trivially). And many people – including some senior civil servants, it seems – failed to spot this in time, and were very indiscreet in their subsequently- subpoenaed communications.
As a result, another kind of lawyers – corporate lawyers – issued edicts which first required, and then forced, employees of certain companies to delete any email more than six months old. That way, they cannot be ‘discovered’ in an adverse legal case, because they have already been erased.
Never mind that many people’s entire working lives are mediated by email today: the email is an accurate and (if permitted) complete record of decisions taken and the process by which that happened. Never mind that emails have effectively replaced the hardbound notebooks that many engineers and scientists would use to retain their every thought and discussion (though in many places good lab practice retains such notebooks). Never mind that although it is creaking under the present strain of ‘spam’ and ‘nearly spam’ (the stuff that I didn’t want, but was sent by coworkers, not random strangers), we simply haven’t got anything better.
The state-of-the art
So now, in those companies, there is no email stored for more than six months, yes? Well, no. Of course not. There are lots of emails which are just too valuable to delete. And so people extract them from the mail system and store them elsewhere. Or forward them to private email accounts. There are, and always will be, many ways to defeat the corporate mail reaper. The difference is that the copies are not filed systematically, are not subject to easy search by the organisation, and will probably not be disclosed to regulators or in other legal discovery processes. This is the state-of-the art in every such organisation I’ve encountered (names omitted to protect the … innocent?).
Sooner or later, a quick-witted external lawyer is going to guess that this kind of informal archiving might help their case, and is going to manage to dig deeper into the adversary’s filestores and processes. When they find some morsels of beef secreted in unlikely places, there will be a rush of corporate panic.
It’s easy to spot the problem. It’s much harder to know what to do about it. Threatening the employees isn’t very productive – especially if the ‘security’ rule is at odds with the goal of getting their work done. Making it a sacking offence, say, to save an email outside the corporate mail system is just going to make people more creative about what they save, and how they save it. Unchecked retention, on the other hand, will certainly leave the organisation ‘remembering’ things it would much rather it had ‘forgotten’.
At least it would be better if the ‘punishment’ matched the crime: restricting the retention of email places the control in the wrong place. It would be much better to reserve the stiff penalties for those engaged in libel, corporate espionage, anticompetitive behaviour, and the rest. Undoubtedly, that would remain a corporate risk, and a place where prevention seems better than cure: the cost to the organisation may be disproportionately greater than any cost that can be imposed upon the individual. But surely it’s the place to look, because in the other direction lies madness.
Financial institutions in the U.S. save every communication: they scan both sides of every piece of paper that comes in the post, archive email, instant messages, and record every telephone call. But traders use their personal mobiles to avoid the surveillance net.
Other companies won’t admit they delete emails as a litigation defence; if pressed, they claim that storage space for mboxes is excessive and costing them too much.
I worry about the loss of institutional memory; after a desktop hard disk failure, a few tech refresh cycles, building moves and corporate email system upgrades, it’s a wonder anyone can find the documentation from a project more than a few years old. Multiply the lost NASA moon landing tapes by a few million companies’ haphazard IT infrastructure, and 1995–2010 might be reckoned by future historians another Dark Age.
That’s interesting. I thought that for some (I would name names, but perhaps that is unwise) it was explicitly to avoid retaining discussions they’d rather not report. But maybe that’s how everyone understands it, but not the corporate position.
The Data Protection Act compels us to retain personal information no longer than is necessary. But few are sure how long is necessary.