Monday, June 23, 2014

The Two-Edged Sword of Email Archives

Lois Lerner, former head of the U. S. Internal Revenue Service Exempt Organizations Division, is a lawyer by training.  Don't forget that fact, which is significant for what follows.  When her division came under fire for selectively persecuting conservative organizations with everything from delays in processing tax-exemption applications to leaks of confidential donor lists, she refused to testify before a House of Representatives investigative committee, claiming the Fifth Amendment's guarantee against self-incrimination.  The House later voted to hold her in contempt of Congress.  And more recently, investigators working the scandal have learned that Ms. Lerner's emails for a critical period ending in 2011 are probably lost because the hard drive she had them on crashed and was thrown away.  Besides throwing a big monkey wrench into the investigation, this fact highlights a question of interest to engineers who design information systems and everyone who uses email:  what do you do with old emails?

Anyone reading this blog is very likely a daily user of email.  Email has been a routine part of life for so long that it is hard to imagine a time when it was available only to a select few computer scientists and physicists in the 1970s.  The transition year for my use of email was 1993.  Here is an excerpt from my journal for Oct. 2 of that year:  "This is the year I have gone whole-hog into email.  Before . . . a year ago I hardly ever used it, but now it’s a rare day I don’t get at least three or four email messages, and send almost that many."  Ah, the good old days.

Most emails, like most conversations, are fleeting in significance.  Once the meeting is set up or the news is shared, the bits representing the message have served their purpose, and you face the problem of what to do with them.  Some people just let the stuff accumulate in their inboxes as close to forever as the operating system permits, using search engines to locate the occasional old email that needs to be found.  A subset of these folks end up declaring "email bankruptcy," which is a term attributed to Lawrence Lessig for a person who gets overwhelmed by email in a given account, ignores it while it piles up to intimidating proportions, and then flushes the whole thing.  Others keep old emails until some external factor intervenes, like a hard-drive crash or a notice from IT support saying their inbox is full.  And then there are the email packrats like me.

Once a month, I go through my email inbox and pitch emails I no longer need.  This is the majority of them, because even after my university's spam filter has disposed of the worst offenders, I still get hundreds of emails every month from conferences I will never attend, organizations I will never join, and product and service providers whose products or services I will never need.  When I encounter an email I would like to keep, I sort it into a folder in my Mac Mail application, which physically resides on my computer.  (No email clouds for this guy—not yet, anyway.)  This tedious task takes me the better part of an morning or afternoon each month, but at the end of it I have the satisfaction of a clean email inbox and the knowledge that I can find any important emails I need without using a search engine, which I've never found that helpful for emails anyway.  Together with regular backups to an external hard drive, this process allows me to locate, or at least have possession of, any email I have received going back as far as 1998, and earlier if I cared to dig up some legacy email software.  It's not quite true that I still have the first email I ever received, but I've got some pretty old ones in there.

Now if I were a lawyer, this clinging to old emails would be unwise behavior on my part.  Why?  Because, as a patent lawyer once told me when I asked whether I should email him or phone him about a delicate and confidential matter, "emails are discoverable, and phone conversations aren't."  "Discoverable" means if somebody sues or indicts you and sends you a subpoena, they can legally grab documents of all kinds, including emails.  But if you happened to have a phone conversation that wasn't recorded, there's nothing to discover, and they have to use oral questioning to grill the participants' memories, which can be conveniently feeble at times. 

It is not for me to say whether Lois Lerner's conveniently-timed hard drive crash and disposal were just the normal way the IRS did business, or whether there were more nefarious things going on.  Experience has taught me that for every bad thing that happens due to evil intent, six or eight bad things happen due to simple incompetence.  It turns out that the IRS's email system managers kept tapes of all emails, but these were routinely erased and reused every six months because they were backups kept for emergencies, not archives retained for permanent storage.  Investigators have turned up thousands of Lerner's emails preserved on the machines of people she sent emails to, so that is something, but the electronic records will never be as complete as they might have been if Lerner had been more of an email packrat.

But if she had been, she probably would have gone into some other field than law, like engineering, and nobody would care about her old emails.  Lawyers know that old records of all kinds, not just emails, can be both helpful and harmful.  The IRS people in charge of email may have made a considered judgment not to keep old emails longer than a certain time.  Or it may have just been up to the individual employee.  At any rate, the lesson from this situation is that old emails are two-edged swords.  If you get rid of them, your life is simpler, but you may be called to account for doing something like purging old emails, that you didn't consider was wrong at the time.  But if you keep them, they may come back to haunt you.

Sources:  I referred to these news stories describing the details of Lois Lerner's hard-drive vicissitudes:  from Politico at from USA Today at, and from National Review Online at  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on email, Lois Lerner, and the 2013 IRS scandal.

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