Computer crash update – IRS letter to Congress re: Lerner emails

An important update to yesterday’s post on the Lois Lerner email situation. The full letter sent to the chairman and ranking member of the Committee on Finance who requested documents and emails from the IRS concerning the application process for tax exempt organizations is now available. PLEASE read this post and share it with everyone … we need to take this as it is – another anecdote on how bad big government is – and move on.

Click here for a PDF scan of the letter. My comments are below. Again, discuss this with friends and family, share this post with everyone, and we need to move on. Rarely do I say that, but it’s the truth. I explain my reasoning in this post.

This update is a result of new information I learned this morning after reading the full PDF made available. The new information … the IRS was only keeping tape backups for six months and recycling the tapes. Edited to add: I’m not justifying this, I’m just explaining what I think happened and saying it’s possible.

Email and computer set up…

It is standard practice for large businesses to not routinely backup individual PCs and laptops. This may sound crazy, but it’s the truth. If you work for a large corporation that has network storage available to employees, your laptop or PCs hard drive is not backed up. Employees should be familiar with this, and are told to keep documents on a “network drive.” Frequently, computers are set up so that when you click on “My Documents” (in a Microsoft Windows environment) you are actually opening a private folder on a network server. Sometimes this folder is “synched” with your local computer. I used to tell managers and co-workers they were nuts to keep important files on their “desktop.” Sure, the files opened quickly and they could find them easily, but I told them over-and-over they were never backed up. A few co-workers lost a lot of work when their drive crashed or they inadvertently deleted a file.

Along with the private space, those “shared drives” also had space accessible by a group of people; a “shared network drive.” As an example, my team had our shared drive where we could all access and update documents we were working on.

The shared drives were backed up routinely. On the last page of the PDF linked above, Lerner indicates she lost some “personal” files that were only located on her hard drive. This was back in July of 2011, and at that point the IRS would not have spent the big dollars to send the drive to a recovery hard drive forensic specialist. If they only knew then what they would need now. At this point, that hard drive is long gone, tossed in a pile somewhere on Aug. 6, 2011 when Lerner said “sometimes stuff just happens.”

Lerner’s hard drive did crash…

I highly doubt the IRS made up those emails on the last four pages of the PDF. To suggest those emails were fabricated would be double tinfoil hat area. That said, the email should not just exist on Lerner’s computer. There should be backups made to meet document retention policies at the server level. (See the section below on IRS retention policy.)

Employees have a right way and a wrong way to store Microsoft Outlook archived PST files…

As I mentioned yesterday in my post (or on the radio show) email storage is expensive. That’s why large companies limit the size of your email box. The letter currently states the size limit is 500 MB. When you reach your limit you can beg for your email box size to be increased (unlikely), clean out old emails not needed for document retention purposes, or locally “archive” older emails. As an example, you can create an archived Microsoft Outlook PST file that contains all of your sent and received emails more than six months old. This reduces the size of your email box on the server, making the IT people happy and creates that PST file that is located on your individual computer’s hard drive. That right there is the failure point in the system.

Instead of leaving that PST file on your local computer, the employee should be moving that PST file to his or her personal network drive mentioned above. I know this seems strange to non-technical people, but storage costs for those PST files on a shared network drive are much lower compared to the very expensive email network servers. I bet Lerner’s PST files (if she had any) were stored on her computer’s hard drive and not on the shared drive (a bad idea), but that brings up some good questions to ask.

  1. Do employees have access to their own personal shared drive on the network where documents are stored and backed up?
  2. Do groups of employees have access to a group shared drive on the network where documents are stored and backed up?
  3. Are employees encouraged to move archived PST files from their local hard drive to their own personal shared drive on the network? Are there instructions on how to do this? Is there a written policy concerning archived PST files and where they should be stored?

IRS retention policy…

In short, back in 2011 the IRS recycled backup tapes every six months. So in other words, after six months the document retention system relied exclusively on the failure point listed above – employees who had Microsoft Outlook PST files stored either on their local computer (bad) or on a network shared drive (better). They changed the policy back in May 2013 to keep the backup tapes in storage because of the litigation hold requested by the special counsel for e-discovery concerning this kerfuffle.

Symptom of the Disease: The size of the IRS…

I agree, it’s a big job to search and retrieve emails from all of the 90,000 IRS employees concerning a specific topic. Stop. Right. There. Ninety-thousand employees? To put this in perspective, Microsoft has about 61,000 employees in the United States.

There are very serious, legislative options currently on the table that could easily solve almost all future issues revolving around IRS employees getting involved with politics. Those options are called the Fair Tax and the Flat Tax.

Again, it’s time to move on. We should use this as an anecdote as to how bad big government can be and I’ll point to it as a “symptom of the disease” but we are not going to get anywhere investigating this.

Exit Questions:

  1. Were any laws broken by the IRS retention policy that recycled backup tapes after six months? How about IRS document retention policies? Were those being ignored prior to the litigation hold?
  2. Does the IRS retention policy for email depend exclusively on an employee creating and maintaining the PST file on their local computer that is not backed up?
20 replies
  1. Murphy
    Murphy says:

    While local pst files do exist they are normal just a local cache. Microsoft Exchange servers (if that is what is used) can maintain all messages (including deleted) on the actual server. Then with the E-discovery rules imposed on business (government probably exempted themselves thought) those files must be backed up and searchable. Many solutions for this process exist. The most common are a local archiving device that also backs up to the cloud for redundancy. That would put messages in at least three spots – email server , backup device & cloud.

    In addition couldn’t you just ask the NSA for their copies.

    • Steve McGough
      Steve McGough says:

      Of course processes exist to solve this issue. I agree that the Exchange servers can store all emails and deleted emails, but in my experience, large companies did have low limits on the space available on the Exchange servers. We were routinely hounded about this, and were directed to archive older emails. Again, the failure point is those archived PST files were created and put on the local machine, and not backed up. (In my post, I do ask if there was a policy in place to require employees to put those PST files on a network drive somewhere.) As I understand it, in the environment I was working in (two different Fortune 50 companies) once the emails were archived to a local PST file, they were no longer on the Exchange Servers themselves. That was the point of it all … to save space and money.

  2. scheidel21
    scheidel21 says:

    The low storage space of many email servers is something form the past at this point, but we also have much larger mailboxes, where I work we have hosted email and have 50GB mailbox limits (hosted exchange) I still have users with PST archives of 8GB-25GB.in addition to their mailboxes which are in excess of 25GB.

    But for a number of years now it’s become pretty standard in large organizations to use central archiving solutions that archive the email on lower cost storage while still retaining it for access by users and for e-discovery purposes. Many solutions offer this including our hosted email, though for an additional cost.

    Not everyone has caught up with this trend though and even in 2011 it was a pretty new trend. PST files are a compliance nightmare for a lot of companies. Additionally the default pst files are stored locally even if “Documents” folder is redirected to a server. Further if they keep their PST files open in their Outlook and it is on a network share, it can be very prone to become corrupt. Many of those people with 8GB+ PST files where I work have had this happen to them may times. The work around is to keep a copy locally and when stuff is added to the archive or it is changed Outlook is closed…

    • Steve McGough
      Steve McGough says:

      Yup. In 2011 and 2012, 500 MB per employee storage on the Exchange server was the norm if not generous. Plus, we’re talking about the government here. It’s not like the government (or even large companies) are even close to the front of technology advances. I know some folks at The Hartford still have to run Windows XP locally since some of their systems are not compatible with Windows 7.

      • scheidel21
        scheidel21 says:

        Anyone in an industrial setting is almost always in for a nightmare, I know people still running industrial stuff on Windows 95 and 98 machines today.

        No I don’t imagine the IRS is up on the latest trends, but with the post below and the very likely case that they were required to retain it all there is a big failing on their part then. That in and of itself is concerning.

    • scheidel21
      scheidel21 says:

      Very good article and if true it certainly means that the IRS failed to follow federal regulation of it’s operations. But like anything else nothing criminal will come of it, except perhaps charges against whoever runs their IT. But I will say this I know a lot of businesses that are not under document retention regulations that don’t put in email archive solutions exactly so they don’t have to comply with e-discovery requests because they can’t and there’s noting legal requiring them to have retained things.

      This sounds like it could start to get very messy.

  3. Shock and Awe
    Shock and Awe says:

    Come on, you’re seriously buying the “clippy ate my homework excuse?” hey we did something immoral, illegal, unconstitutional and unamerican, and we just happened to “accidentally” loose these things that would be incriminating. if it sounds like a duck, smells like a duck and looks like a duck, it is a duck. I’m calling bs, they are a bunch of lying treasonous scumbags i doubt the computer crashed so whether or not it’s backed up is irrelevant. Oh and guess what, more emails related have just gone missing.

  4. bien-pensant
    bien-pensant says:

    So, if I have this right:
    If I’m in the IRS (or any gub’mint agency) and I have to produce emails, all I have to do is wait, stall, hem and haw, for 6 months and they will disappear? Nothing criminal, no charges, no blowback, just home free! Business as usual.

    Sweet.

    Harry Potter has nothing on these folks.

    Mischief managed!

    • scheidel21
      scheidel21 says:

      Not exactly must of the government agencies operate as independent IT operations so there is no standarDization of technology or the way things are fine leading to lots of issues and increased costs since something comfort like email isn’t a pooled resource. So quite honestly the USDA may have different and better policies and procedures than the IRS or another agency. I can guarantee you the NSA and CIA gave much better technology and policies than the IRS, but good luck getting stuff from them.

      • bien-pensant
        bien-pensant says:

        Especially when the word comes down from the top:
        “You will not embarrass the One.”

        Simply put: “Lose any incriminating evidence, now.”

        Plus, it keeps many people from focusing on the latest foreign policy blunder.

        Time to move on . . . and focus on more important issues. The Learner emails are a diversion.

    • bien-pensant
      bien-pensant says:

      Close.

      But not close enough.

      –This regime operates on many dictum, one of which is:

      If you can’t dazzle ’em with brilliance, baffle ’em with b*llsh*t.

  5. Dimsdale
    Dimsdale says:

    So we have to maintain our tax documentation for, what is it, seven years, but they cannot maintain their own documentation for more than six months?

    I will give them a pass if our requirements are reduced to theirs….

    Aside from that, Lerner should lose her pension and face jail time for her semi refusal to testify to Congress.

Comments are closed.