Yes, the IRS probably did lose those emails
The story of the lost emails of Lois Lerner and other IRS employees will undoubtedly be in the news for a long time to come, in fact until President Obama has left office if the GOP has its way. After all, everyone must know that the only way that such a massive store of electronic data could be lost in this modern age of cheap data storage and advanced technology is on purpose. Don’t they? Well, if they do know that it’s just another case of people knowing something that just isn’t so. If you want to discuss something technical or scientific, you should go ask the technicians or the scientists, shouldn’t you? This, unfortunately, while eminently sensible is not particularly in vogue with far too many people lately. Let’s ignore them, shall we?
I thought it was interesting when I found an article on ZDNet, a web site that specializes in technology, on the likelihood of the emails having been lost just as the IRS was saying they were. ZDNet, by the way, is the “descendant” of Ziff-Davis, a company that has been publishing magazines about computers since before the internet existed. I’ve been reading their various publications for a long time. Larry Seltzer, the writer of this article, has always struck me as a pretty good writer. His conclusion is that it’s entirely likely that there was no intentional destruction of those emails, just some amazingly bad IT management. He even cites a column by Megan McCardle, who had experience before her career change as a manager of Exchange email systems, who despite her (understandable given her ideology) qualifications on how suspicious it all still looks admits that it’s pretty likely that it was sheer bad technology management that caused this train wreck. Both Seltzer and McCardle studied this document provided to the House Ways and Means Committee by the IRS to come to their conclusions and after reading it myself I agree wholeheartedly. Here’s why.
The IRS, like many other governmental and private organizations, uses an email system based on software from Microsoft. The software on the client computers, like Lois Lerner’s, is called Outlook and the software on the servers is called Microsoft Exchange. One of the things I do in my day job is to run a very small installation like this for my employers. Like, Seltzer, I found it very striking that nowhere in the document the IRS provided was the word Exchange even mentioned. That’s a red flag about the understanding of the system that the person preparing this document possesses, in my opinion. In such a system the Exchange server not only manages the business of knowing everyone’s email address and the information to route it all properly but it is actually where the main storehouse of email is kept in databases as well as other information like the user’s address book, task list, and calendar. The Outlook software keeps a copy of this data on the client computer if it was set up that way when installed. In an organization with as much sensitive information as the IRS, my personal choice would be to not have that option selected. So everything would be on the servers. Or at least it should be. But in a not very brilliant display of badly allocated resources each employee was limited to 500 megabytes of storage in their mailbox. I can tell you that far more space than that is needed for a busy person who keeps their data for any length of time, like 4 times as much storage just for a busy person in a small business. How much more do you think a manager of an agency with 90,000 employees that is answerable to the Senate, the House and the White House needs? Then there are the policies concerning what to do when you run out of space. Seltzer quotes that paragraph and I think I will too. The emphasis is mine.
When a user needs to create space in his or her email box, the user has the option of either deleting emails (that do not qualify as official records) or moving them out of the active email box (inbox, sent items, deleted items) to an archive. In addition, if an email qualifies as an official record, per IRS policy, the email must be printed and placed in the appropriate file by the employee. Archived email is moved off the IRS email server and onto the employee’s hard drive on the employee’s individual computer.
So, yes, if an individual user has a hard drive crash they will lose all of their immediately available archived email. And it’s so very, very unnecessary. See, if you’re running an Exchange Server system and you’re willing or able to spend the money for what Microsoft calls the Enterprise edition of Exchange Server you can add the software and hardware so that those archives are not on someone’s local drive but are instead stored on drives linked to the servers that can in turn be backed up as more data is archived from the users. For the IRS or any other government agency to not have the budget to do this is, to use an old phrase, penny wise and pound foolish.