November 13, 2007
Email retention revisited

Last month, Elise Hu of KVUE took a look at the state of Texas' email retention policy and how it relates to open record laws. A fellow named John Washburn read about it and decided to do something about it.

The Milwaukee-based software consultant programmed his computer to automatically spit out two requests a week for all government e-mail generated by Perry staffers. He hasn't gotten a single e-mail yet, but Washburn has already achieved a victory of sorts. Under state law, records aren't supposed to be destroyed once somebody has asked for them.

In other words, Washburn has singlehandedly brought the electronic shredders to a grinding halt.

"I've kind of put a stick in the spokes of the wheel," said Washburn, whose fight for election records in Wisconsin made him a believer in open government. "The whole point of public records is to make those ongoing transactions and government policy decisions more transparent to the public. If they're gone, by definition, that's about as opaque as it gets."

Here's the correspondence. Very clever, and perfectly logical. It's not like these emails are taking up physical space, so why not? If nothing else, this gambit should make it clear that Governor Perry's policies are not compatible with the spirit of the law.

On Friday, Perry spokeswoman Krista Moody said the governor's office will comply with Washburn's request, which prompted officials to deactivate the automatic destruction of the records.

"That was disabled [Thursday]," Moody said. The governor's office is "holding all e-mail correspondence and not wiping clean the server after seven days." She said it's typically up to each employee of the governor's office to set aside and save e-mails that they believe should be preserved as public records. Otherwise, they get whacked automatically.

"We believe our staff is acting lawfully and in good faith," Moody said. She said Perry's office receives a "high volume" of e-mail and doesn't have the server space to keep them indefinitely.

She also said the governor's office believes that some government e-mail, such as informal exchanges between employees about going to have coffee or lunch, don't have to be saved at all and can be deleted within minutes or hours after they're created.

"They are transitory, we're not required to [save them]," Moody said. "Basically, e-mails that have nothing to do with state business are eligible to be deleted at any time."

Okay, let's talk about the bit I emphasized, because I'm quite certain that neither Krista Moody nor reporter Jay Root understands how Exchange servers work. I can guarantee you that nobody is "wiping clean" any servers, because among other things it would mean every single email - including just-received-not-yet-read email - is being zapped. Trust me when I say that ain't happening.

What I suspect Moody means is this: When you empty your Deleted Items folder in Outlook, a copy of the email you've just dumped still exists on the Exchange server. That's because Exchange servers are configured to retain deleted items for a period of time - I forget if 10 days or 30 is the default, but this "Deleted Items Retention" property is what allows you to go back into the Deleted Items folder and retrieve something you've wiped out. Most likely, Moody either means that the Deleted Items Retention period is set to 7 days, or that once a week the Deleted Items Retention store is purged.

That still doesn't answer the question about how long backup tapes are kept. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the tapes are recycled every seven days, but the question still needs an official answer. And as Vince points out, all this violates the email policy model for state agencies as defined by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Is there an official rule about this, or is it all "suggested"? I think it's time that got clarified. I suspect it will take a lawsuit, or at least an Attorney General opinion, to make that happen. The Texas Observer, whic knows a thing or two about open records requests and the havoc they can wreak, is following this saga as well. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that Elise Hu noted that Governor Perry may be violating his own stated email policy.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 13, 2007 to Show Business for Ugly People

I suspect this is going on in other state agencies. Specifically, I heard that the Texas Education Agency has policies about a quick turnaround on actual document shredding and email.

Posted by: Martha Griffin on November 13, 2007 11:59 AM

Speaking as one who has had to provide emails as part of an open records request, in WI and not TX, it bites.

Lots of restoring old mailboxes, pulling out data, forwarding it, etc.

However, we've got to do it. Open records means that.

I though this was about the white house retention, wehn I read the title. ;-)

Posted by: Wich on November 13, 2007 12:49 PM