Federal government agencies have been warned that, for them, deleting e-mail is illegal. E-mail should be treated the same as paper records under the Archives Act of 1983.
At least one federal IT boss is surprised. Con Gatsios, IT manager for the Melbourne Office of Federal Public Prosecutions, said deleting and maintaining e-mails was each individual's responsibility.
A directive that people should not delete any of their e-mails would be impossible to police and maintain, he said. "The amount of space all these e-mails would take up would be insane."
The warning comes from National Archives of Australia acting director-general Steve Stuckey following an article in Computerworld (August 28, page 8), which outlined new software that could make e-mail disappear after a set period of time.
"Commonwealth government agencies thinking about purchasing this software need to be made aware that it is illegal to delete e-mails; this is what the National Archives would tell any court where a Commonwealth public servant was being questioned about the destruction of such e-mail evidence," Stuckey said.
In a letter to Computerworld, he says: "While it is tempting to use products that automate the destruction of our e-mail correspondence it is worth remembering that we all have business, accountability and community requirements to keep evidence of our activities."
Stuckey said that, without evidence, federal public sector employees are open to allegations of wrongdoing and that records are required to disprove claims.
He said all records should be kept and employees should remember even personal e-mails are technically the property of the employer.
"Keeping records doesn't have to be an onerous task" with the availability of effective electronic record-keeping systems "because it should be a normal administrative practice", Stuckey said.
According to the federal Archives Act of 1983, government agencies must manage their electronic records with the same care as they manage paper records.
Federal public sector employees must not dispose of electronic records except under an appropriate disposal authority issued by the National Archives of Australia.
The National Archives' Web site (www.naa.gov.au) provides guidelines outlining the legal requirements of federal public sector employees in relation to e-mails, including appropriate e-mail use.
"I am aware of cases in Australia where harassing e-mails have led to sackings; we have advised our staff to expect random checks from IT staff," Stuckey said.
Stuckey agreed encryption technology is necessary to ensure communications are secure but "we also need to produce evidence of these activities over time that is accessible and meaningful to those who need it", he said. Records of all communications should be kept, including notes of important telephone calls, Stuckey added.
Disappearing E-mail, which is an add-on to Microsoft Outlook, allows IT staff to manage the deluge of digital information that is sent and received on a daily basis.