Should governments be subject to message archiving? - Part 1

By Donald McElligott on November 20, 2014
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DON MCElligott

VP of Compliance Supervision

Donald has over 10 years of experience working with message supervision and compliance technology in the financial industry.


In the early days of the 21st century, the financial industry was rocked by a series of massive scandals. Among the most prominent were the meltdown of Enron, the subsequent criminal case against Arthur Anderson, and the sudden bankruptcy of Worldcom – at the time the largest bankruptcy filing in United States history. These cases were followed by increased federal regulation of recordkeeping in the financial world, which necessitated comprehensive archiving of electronic messaging.

In this three-part series, Global Relay will examine how a number of recent recordkeeping scandals 
in government demonstrate that this process is about to repeat itself in the public sector. The scandals may be different, but the problem is the same – inadequate requirements for the retention of electronic message data. 

Part 1: Scandals in email retention

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is currently suing the state of Pennsylvania over its email retention policy, after the newspaper’s investigation into an advisor to the governor only turned up five archived emails for a year-long period. In Pennsylvania, only emails retaining to state business are required to be archived. This vague guideline leaves it to individual employees to decide what messages should be deleted. Once deleted, emails are only backed up for five days, after which they cannot be retrieved. Pennsylvania’s recordkeeping was similarly challenged in 2011, when the Attorney General’s office came under fire for reducing email retention limits from five years to six months. Lawmakers from both parties responded in support of minimum standards for email retention.

Such scandals are repeating all across government entities. In South Dakota, one of 14 states that do not consider any government emails to be public record, a recent investigation of state employee fraud was stalled by an aggressive email deletion policy. As in Pennsylvania, South Dakota relies on individual state employees to determine what is worthy of retention. Deleted emails are backed up for no more than 37 days.

At the federal level, the Internal Revenue Service recently faced a scandal hinging on email archiving. When former IRS official Lois Lerner was under investigation for potentially improper practices, emails from the period in question could not be recovered. In 2011, when the emails were sent, the IRS only kept a backup of its email server records on digital tapes for six months, after which time the tapes were reused and the original data erased. Employee mailboxes were capped at a mere 500 megabytes, so any additional data was either deleted or stored on the employee’s hard drive. This meant that when Lerner’s hard drive crashed in 2011, as did the hard drives of several other key players in the scandal, thousands of emails were permanently lost from the public record.

In all of these cases, an investigation into allegations of wrongdoing revealed the poor retention practices, exacerbating the effect of the original issue through the lack of a complete public record.  

Check out Part 2 of this series for how scandals such as these are changing the nature of message archiving for governments.


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