Demystifying the Connecticut E-mail Quandary

A policy addressing e-mail retention and disaster recovery raises issues about how electronic correspondence needs to be stored.
by | December 21, 2010

Jessica Mulholland

Jessica Mulholland is the associate editor of GOVERNING, and is also the associate editor of both Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.

Have you heard about the records retention quandary in Connecticut? How officials in Gov. M. Jodi Rell's administration were considering deleting 161 million e-mails stored on backup tapes after 60 days, and Gov.-elect Dan Malloy wants to make sure that doesn't happen?

Well, no e-mails will be deleted after all, but the backstory on the controversy is interesting: Backup tapes aren't supposed to be used for long-term retention in the first place.

In 2008, the state's Department of Information Technology (DOIT) procured and installed an archiving system. It was tested in 2009. The process of aligning it with the Connecticut State Library's record retention rules, however, resulted in a delay in its implementation, says DOIT spokeswoman Nuala Whelton.

In April 2010, the Connecticut State Library approved a policy, written by DOIT, to coincide with this new system. One of the rules in the (unimplemented) policy was that backups would be deleted after 60 days.

Hartford Courant columnist Jon Lender reported about this policy, noting that for it to go into effect, memorandums of understanding would have had to be signed and employees would have had to be trained. With Malloy taking office on Jan. 5, it's too late for the Rell administration to start that process.

Had the policy actually gone into effect, however, the new archiving system, upon being "turned on," would have captured every e-mail sent or received from that point forward. The backup tapes in question would have been kept until all outstanding Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests were fulfilled, and then they would have been destroyed. But now, it's been determined that the thousands of backup tapes should be transferred into the archiving system -- and they're already being migrated over, says Whelton.

"The draft policy itself was an attempt to establish compliance with retention schedules established by the state library in June of 2009," says Whelton.

Ultimately this policy raises questions over how electronic correspondence needs to be retained and for how long. Transparency is a legally mandated and worthy aim, but there may be costs to keeping multiple records. So how do governments achieve transparency with what their systems and budgets can bear?

Backup Tapes vs. E-mail Retention

Technically, it's accurate that e-mails and their attachments are stored on backup tapes. The backup tapes, though essential, differ from e-mail retention, says Public Records Administrator LeAnn Power. Every night, an incremental backup captures what changed from the previous day, and at week's end, a full backup is transferred to the tape. The backup tapes used for recovery are stored offsite, and they are identical to a second set of tapes kept at DOIT.

"The backup tapes consist of backup media needed to restore systems and data in the event of loss of information," Power says. "They're a snapshot of the system at a particular point in time." Each agency has its own backup tape cycle, meaning that new backups are created so that if the system goes down in the event of a disaster, the system can be recovered. At this point, Whelton says, no backup tapes are deleted -- ever.

The state library's record retention schedule for e-mail has been in place since 1995, was revised in June 2009, and the state has no plans to alter it, Power says. According to the schedule, the preservation of governor correspondences includes both paper and e-mail records. "These records are permanent and will not be destroyed," Power says. "The governor's paper and e-mail correspondence records are and will continue to be retained in accordance with the retention schedule for governors' records, Schedule Number 92-4-1."

Other e-mail correspondence is retained based on content -- if the e-mail has information about agency function and/or business. According to a 2009 letter regarding management and retention of e-mail, e-mails with agency business are retained for a minimum of two years (longer for more important e-mails), then agencies can submit authorization to destroy records.

Though the state library has this retention policy and schedule, DOIT simply retains everything captured during the backup process, Whelton says.

E-mails a Data Burden

An increasing dependence on e-mail to conduct state business -- more than 56 million e-mails from 25,000 accounts at 44 agencies in 2009 -- means more e-mails to backup and retain. DOIT is determining how to best handle the influx of data.

To store the Rell and soon Malloy administration's e-mails is expensive and labor intensive. Allocating staff to respond to e-discovery requests is currently a three-hour process that entails loading backed-up information on tape and onto DOIT's server.

"The new system will make it easier to comply with FOIA requests, that's going to lower costs associated with the management of e-mail. That ultimately is going to enable greater availability of information in a shorter period of time," Whelton says. "That is the primary benefit of archiving information, and that is the primary reason the system was procured in the first place. It's critical that the business requirements get taken into consideration, and those requirements were the subject of further discussions about the archiving system and how it would be implemented."

Due to the impending holiday, DOIT couldn't retrieve an exact cost associated with storing the millions of e-mails, among other digital items. Whelton did say, however, that the bulk of the cost is incurred through acquisition of the tapes, and various soft costs were associated with staff labor. "Costs add up," she says, "and the archiving system is going to take some of the pressure off of those costs."

If no backup data is ever deleted, DOIT would continue to retain two sets of the same information -- something one might contend is a waste.

And that is where the previously mentioned policy comes into play. Once Malloy is in office, this unimplemented policy will need to be addressed. If the policy is implemented, a system backup that's 60 days old would be destroyed. New system backups would still exist for recovery purposes. The archive on the soon-to-be-implemented system will be housed there -- indefinitely.

Using this new archiving system, agencies could perform many of their own searches, which will help DOIT realize improved operations. "We are eager to get this system in place and realize these efficiencies," Whelton says.

Transparency advocates, to be sure, should also be happy to know that even if this proposed policy goes into effect, they should be able to get their hands on any e-mails they want.


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