Disappearing e-mails a legal threat

E-mail's most vexing question: how do you know it's missing if it never arrives - may be annoying for users. However, it could be a serious legal problem for IT managers who could fall foul of federal archiving laws.

Under Australia's Archives Act of 1983, e-mail should be treated in the same way as paper records and for public sector agencies deleting e-mails is illegal.

However, the act does not take into account some of the problems of e-mail technology -- such as the amount of storage space needed to keep them on file. Nor does the act make allowances for the number of e-mails that go missing.

IT production facilities manager at Monash University, Steven White, said the problem of disappearing e-mails is hard to manage.

"Last year we realised one in five e-mails was not reaching its destination; we found out because users were complaining to the help desk. When an e-mail was sent the second time it would go through," White said.

"Also, we wanted to be able to review and assess e-mail traffic as we had had problems with our SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) farm earlier in the year."

This was a further complication to the problem of storing e-mails for record keeping purposes, which one IT manager from a Federal Government agency described as an "insane" practice.

"It is impossible to police users and stop them from deleting e-mails despite the fact they are the property of the employer," he said. There is significant debate surrounding the archiving of e-mail with one group believing it should be kept and the other which simply deletes old e-mail after a set period.

The National Archives of Australia has warned commonwealth agencies it is illegal to delete e-mails and to avoid purchasing software which deletes e-mail after a set period of time.

White said there needs to be quotas on usage to stop users from treating e-mail as a filing system for documents.

He said the university, which is the 15th largest IT user in Australia, implemented BMC Patrol software to monitor e-mails and to ensure IT is notified if there is more than 300 in a queue.

Tenders for e-mail management software went to 10 vendors, which was shortlisted to three -- Compaq, IBM and BMC.

White said Compaq and BMC worked hard to win the contract whereas IBM put the university onto a reseller and didn't follow up.

"The Compaq bid was good but it was a hybrid solution combining Computer Associates and BMC. We were concerned that when we wanted product support there would be some finger-pointing, whereas a single vendor can provide customer focus," he said.