How Long Should Government E-Mail Linger?

Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty has ordered the deletion of all e-mails not saved by city government workers in January of 2008. The more e-mail government employees send, the more there is to store, costing taxpayers money. But costs must be balanced against the need to preserve history.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

JAMES HATTORI, host:

And I'm James Hattori.

Next January, in the first few days of the New Year, something huge will suddenly vanish from Washington, D.C. Sounds like a sci-fi movie. In fact what's gone is out there in cyberspace.

BRAND: That's because they are e-mails. D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty has ordered that all e-mail city workers have not saved will be deleted.

As our tech contributor Xeni Jardin reports, there may be some problems with this mass cleanout.

XENI JARDIN: How to manage the e-mail pileup - it's a problem for all of us. Storage is cheaper these days, but it isn't free. And the more e-mail government employees send, the more there is to store. And that costs taxpayers money. But the question of how much e-mails our officials hang on to isn't just about I.T. budget. It's about keeping our government honest in preserving history.

Ryan Singel covers the intersection of government and technology for Wired News. He digs back to the digital dark ages of the early 1980s and one episode of the Iran-Contra affair that involved electronic messages in the National Security Council.

Mr. RYAN SINGEL (Staff Writer, Wired News): The Reagan administration wanted to destroy those records. But it ended up being a very long court battle over, you know, what to do with - what was e-mail before most people knew about e-mail.

JARDIN: Many of those e-mails had been stored and some revealed patterns of illegal behavior. Decades later, Singel says, there's a greater awareness among officials that anything you send today could be used in court against you months or years later if you become the subject of an investigation.

Mr. SINGEL: Quite a number of the most prominent political figures we know, including President Bush himself, just don't use e-mail, particularly because they don't want to leave this kind of trail behind them. So they'll have the e-mail traffic go to their subordinates.

JARDIN: For public servants who do use e-mail, deleting and purging records can lead to a perception problem. Marc Rogers is a computer forensics expert at Purdue University.

Mr. MARC ROGERS (Purdue University): We tend to be less trusting of those institutions which want to get rid of information quickly. When a private citizen collects the e-mail or is purging it quickly, that takes on a whole different context when it's seen as a business or a government. The first thing you ask is, what is it that you don't want anybody to find down the road?

JARDIN: The problem with how governments deal with e-mail is that no one seems to agree on a single approach. The California governor's office deletes its trashed e-mail after only two weeks. Compare that to Virginia, where most e-mail sent or received by the governor must be saved as long as he is in office. Then they're burned onto discs and shipped to state archives.

Kevin Hall is a spokesperson for Virginia governor Timothy Kaine.

Mr. KEVIN HALL (Spokesperson for Governor Kaine): Perhaps it's a uniquely Virginia thing since - well, pardon my modesty, but this where it all started and where some of the first deep thinkers did some of their best work, i.e., the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson and others.

JARDIN: And the e-mailed notes of today's deep thinkers in government - back in D.C., the city government is about to start deleting after six months. Christina Fleps is general counsel for the chief technology officer there, and she says don't think of the network as a storage system.

Ms. CHRISTINA FLEPS (General Counsel for Chief Technology Officer, Washington, D.C.): It really is a communications highway. Just as you wouldn't think of the interstate highway system as a place to store cars, really our e-mail system is not a place to store messages primarily. We have to keep it up and running 24/7/365 at a reasonable cost.

I don't think taxpayers or anyone would want to have millions upon millions upon millions of dollars going into more and more servers, and more and more people to save the e-mails forever.

JARDIN: Fleps stresses the new purging program is a trial and they may change it later. D.C. city employees can choose to save specific e-mails longer than six months. But back in the Virginia governor's office, spokesperson Kevin Hall believes preserving the historic value of all work-related e-mail is important.

If we ask individual government employees to pick and choose which messages might be of historic value many years from now, will they leave out incriminating or embarrassing items? Who knows what we'll lose?

Mr. HALL: I think what you'd lose, if you have a haphazard policy on records retention, is you lose that context and that connectedness between ideas and policies.

JARDIN: If Thomas Jefferson were around today using a Blackberry, do you think he'd be a deleter or a keeper?

Mr. HALL: I would certainly keep his messages. I have a feeling that it would be hard to separate Thomas Jefferson from a Blackberry. That's how prolific he was.

JARDIN: And just as archeologists today reconstruct history from trash heaps at old settlements, perhaps future generations will learn something about us by dumpster diving through our computer recycle bins. Hieroglyphic emoticons, anyone?

BRAND: Okay, Xeni, so you wouldn't want to delete Thomas Jefferson's early draft of the Declaration of Independence or, you know, any private correspondence he may have had with Sally Hemmings. But who doesn't have storage issues? And you just talked about this is an issue for governments; what about corporations?

JARDIN: Sure, well, for corporations, as we send more and more e-mail every day and as the lines between personal and business correspondence blur, it becomes a big cost issue.

BRAND: So as a worker, what do you recommend? Do you think that we should delete or save?

JARDIN: Well, let's say as an individual there are decisions to make depending on, I don't know, depending on how important of a part of your life and a part of your communication that is. And one thing to think about, too, is that many of the Web-based e-mail systems that are popular today - G-mail, Hotmail, Yahoo - I mean, that can be one way of I guess putting off the problem, having it sit on somebody else's servers.

But you know, when I think about my personal mountain of e-mail, hey, I hang on to e-mails that are as many as 10 years old. I like to have that locally. That's really important to me, so I make sure to have backup discs just like I do with the information in my computer.

BRAND: See, but I think most people save their e-mails out of entropy. I know I do. I just don't get around to deleting them and all of a sudden...

JARDIN: Sure.

BRAND: ...mailbox is too full and I can't send e-mails.

JARDIN: It's something that's increasingly an issue for individuals also because we're sending so many big, fat attachments - videos and photos. And as the speed at which we connect to the Internet grows, so does the temptation to send larger and larger cat videos.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Having been a recipient of your cat video, I can attest.

JARDIN: But they were funny, right?

BRAND: Yeah. It's worth all of that space it's taking it.

JARDIN: They're worth the inbox clog.

BRAND: So what happens to my e-mail, all of those messages, inbox and outbox? What happens to all of that stuff? If I leave the company, where does it go?

JARDIN: Well, it depends in large part on the company. I mean, many companies these days are hanging on to that kind of information for as long as it makes sense, you know, in terms of legal liability. But I guess the one thing that's important for all of us to remember is if you tell your boss, take this job and shove it and you walk off, your e-mails don't necessarily disappear right away. So all of your digital doings while you are on the job, don't expect that there's privacy with that.

BRAND: Thank you, Xeni.

JARDIN: Thank you, Madeleine.

BRAND: That's Xeni Jardin, our tech contributor, and you can find an archive of her work for the show - we don't delete anything - plus her podcasts at npr.org/xeni, and that is spelled X-E-N-I.

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