VARs Urge Cities Like Ferguson To Archive To Ease Public Records Retrieval

Email archiving and server-based text messaging systems are vital for municipalities such as Ferguson, Mo., to retrieve public records following a high-profile event.

Solution providers said auto-archiving features and keyword searches would make it relatively easy for Ferguson to fulfill the deluge of public records requests it has received from news organizations, nonprofits and citizens since the Aug. 9 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson.

Members of the press and public have been requesting everything from copies of police officials' emails and text messages to police reports to Wilson's personnel file, according to an Associated Press (AP) story published Monday.

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The AP said Ferguson indicated it would need to bring in VAR Acumen Consulting of St. Louis for 16 hours to retrieve messages from its own email system at a cost of $2,000.

Acumen told the AP that such a search could be complicated and require technicians to examine tape backups. The company didn't respond to a CRN request for comment.

Ferguson told CRN in a statement that it may pass costs along to the person filing a freedom of information request if the task involves extra computer programming, such as searching groups of emails for specific terms.

But solution providers indicated that completing such a request shouldn't be all that difficult.

Jim Gaffney, vice president of RJ2 Technologies in Schaumburg, Ill., said a basic keyword search can easily turn up words, strings of word, or statements that appear anywhere in an internal or external email account.

The key, though, is having an active archiving service, Gaffney said. Popular office email systems such as Microsoft Outlook have a feature that can be turned on or off, which automatically archives emails either 90 days or six months after they were received, he said.

Employers in certain private-sector verticals, such as financial services, are required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to either back up or archive all incoming or outgoing email, Gaffney said.

However, access to old emails varies greatly among workplaces, depending on what email system they're using and whether files are stored on the local machine or in centralized systems, said John Fields, vice president of client services for Blade Technologies, an IT consulting services firm in St. Louis.

"Pretty much every scenario you walk into is going to be a unique environment," Fields said.

An email sitting anywhere on a laptop is searchable, Gaffney said, even if it's being stored at the server level rather than on the machine.

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If an archiving system is not available or in place, the next best bet is hoping the sender or recipient hasn't deleted the message. Many workplaces either automatically wipe old emails from employees' inboxes after a certain period of time or have policies as to when old messages can be deleted, Fields said.

There's still a glimmer of hope, though, even if a message has been deleted and isn't archived.

Gaffney said a backup copy of the email might be sitting on the server that delivered the message. However, some servers automatically wipe delivered emails after 90 days, or automatically delete messages right away.

"If it's automatically wiped off, there's probably no way to retrieve it," Gaffney said. "Once it's deleted from the server, it's gone."

Another wrinkle involves requests for email messages from an employee no longer with the organization.

Workplaces will typically kill an employee's network access -- including destroying their email account -- once he or she is no longer with the company, Fields said. Resurrecting the email account of a departed employee would normally take six to seven hours, he said.

As for text messaging, corporations using a server-based system, such as BlackBerry or Microsoft Lync, would have a fairly easy time recovering messages, Fields said.

And as with email, the SEC requires that financial services firms back up or archive incoming or outgoing text messages, Gaffney said. That normally leads workers at banks or insurance companies to have separate mobile devices for business so that personal text messages don't get intermingled, he said.

If text messages are neither backed up nor sent on a server-based system, recovering them would require a subpoena of the telecom carrier, a process that Fields said is typically time-consuming and costly.

Police records or personnel files shouldn't be particularly difficult to compile from an IT perspective.

Documents such as these are typically categorized or indexed, Fields said, and are, therefore, pretty retrievable using case file information.

"Searching out particular files is relatively easy as long as you've got keywords," Gaffney said.

And Gaffney said that even digitally misplaced documents can be recovered as long as they're on the infrastructure.

A forensic identification process involving the installation of software can usually track down lost documents within a few days, Gaffney said, by searching for the whole laptop or desktop for key phrases, or people and places named in the document.