The insanity of retention policies


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I was doing some more research into other companies doing enterprise document analysis, and the combination of staring at this page from PSS Systems and having just finished Bleak House made me step back and realize what a fundamentally dumb idea retention policies for legal reasons are.

As Dickens describes it:

The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself.  There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings.  Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it.  Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.

Retention policy is a euphemism for deletion policy. Emails over a certain age are deleted, even from backups, usually after 6 or 12 months. The sole reason for this is so that if you’re sued, you aren’t able to hand over older documents, and there’s no question that you deleted them specifically out of a guilty conscience, it’s just your blanket policy. As one of Dicken’s lawyers says:

Being in the law, I have learnt the habit of not committing myself in writing.

There’s no good technical reason for deleting old emails. You’ve made those backup tapes, it’s actually more work to make sure that old ones are destroyed. You also have to make sure you do keep any messages that relate to currently active lawsuits, which is where PSS Systems comes in by semantically analyzing documents to spot those that might be needed in discovery.

Email is the collective memory of an organization, and removing old emails is deliberate corporate amnesia. It’s needed because so many recent court cases have hinged on ‘incriminating’ memos, and with thousands of messages written every day, it’s almost certain that somebody’s dry sarcasm could be painted as deadly serious in front of a jury.

Why does this matter? You’re losing the history of the company. Unless you have explicitly copied them, all those old conversations and attachments you might need to refer back to one day are gone. It’s like putting a back-hoe through an archaeological site, you can never get that information back. Just like archeology, I’m convinced that there will be new techniques in the future that can pull more information out of that data than we can today. Old email should be an asset, not a liability. Unfortunately as long as the legal climate keeps companies terrified of a losing the litigation lottery, they’ll keep deleting.

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