Feeds

The politics of email in the workplace

Mixing business with pleasure

Intelligent flash storage arrays

It's springtime in Washington, D.C. The cherry blossoms have bloomed, the tourists descended, and on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue a new "scandal" is erupting.

In the Watergate era, there was the controversy about Rosemary Woods and the 18 ½ minute "gap" - a missing portion of a taped conversation of June 20, 1972. Now in connection with "US Attorney-gate" we have a new controversy. The alleged "destruction" of electronic mail sent by employees of the White House through email servers used by the Republican National Committee. The matter raises more important issues for government agencies, companies, ISPs and others. Do I really have an email retention policy, and what emails do these policies apply to?

The US attorney controversy

The immediate issue arises out of an investigation by Democrats on the United States Senate Judiciary Committee into allegations that certain federal prosecutors were fired for improper political purposes. The US Department of Justice asserts that the firings were for perfectly appropriate "performance" reasons and that these prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the President and can be fired for virtually any reason.

The email controversy arose when it was discovered that White House employees may have sent email communications about the US Attorney matter through US government computers or computer systems using email systems operated by the Republican National Committee (RNC.) Unlike most governmental emails, which as I will show have to be retained, there is generally no legal requirement that emails of the RNC be maintained. Thus, at least according to press reports, the emails in the RNC systems were "deleted" after 30 days. Or were they?

Personal vs non-personal email

The issues surrounding the controversy are not limited to the United States government. Every company that maintains a mail system has the problem of what to retain, and how to retain it. In addition to a "corporate" email system, companies may also provide employees with access to personal email. This may be through a separate exchange server, but more frequently, companies may allow employees to access their personal email through some form of webmail, either by POP3 or IMAP protocols. Most email systems allow access to email over the web, including AOL, Google's GMail, MSN, and its Hotmail service, Comcast, etc. While many companies expressly prohibit and indeed block access to personal email through their servers, there are actually legal reasons to permit such access.

Corporate or government email, coming as it does from "whitehouse.gov" or "company.com" carries with it an imprimatur of authority. It can be likened to a corporate letterhead or official government stationary. Yet people use such email for much more casual conversations then they would for a formal corporate letter. Nobody would consider whipping out company stationary to write a letter to their doctor or send a quick note to the girl scout troop leader. But an email - no problem. As a result, corporations and government agencies end up sending "official" email about all kinds of matters which do not relate in any way to official business. Indeed, it becomes difficult for recipients of email to effectively determine which communications are intended to bind the company, and which ones aren't - what the law calls "apparent authority".

Companies can deal with this problem in several ways. First, they can impose an outright ban on any kind of personal use of email. A quick note to the little league coach that Bobby is going to be late because mom has to work late is a policy violation which may result in disciplinary action.

Would such a policy be effective, workable, and enforceable? In most cases, probably not - at least not without a good deal of technology deployed around it, including "white lists" and content filters. One problem with this approach is that it is generally implemented inconsistently, and this can lead to legal problems. For example, a recent case involved a Virginia newspaper that prohibited personal use of its email system, but apparently only enforced this policy when employees used the email system for union organising activity lead to legal problems for the paper.

In that case (pdf), decided March 15, 2007, the court found that the uneven enforcement of the "no personal use" policy meant that the company could not select union activities for enforcement. The lesson is: if you are going to prohibit personal use of email, you'd better prohibit it entirely.

Top 5 reasons to deploy VMware with Tegile

More from The Register

next story
WHY did Sunday Mirror stoop to slurping selfies for smut sting?
Tabloid splashes, MP resigns - but there's a BIG copyright issue here
Spies, avert eyes! Tim Berners-Lee demands a UK digital bill of rights
Lobbies tetchy MPs 'to end indiscriminate online surveillance'
How the FLAC do I tell MP3s from lossless audio?
Can you hear the difference? Can anyone?
Inequality increasing? BOLLOCKS! You heard me: 'Screw the 1%'
There's morality and then there's economics ...
Google hits back at 'Dear Rupert' over search dominance claims
Choc Factory sniffs: 'We're not pirate-lovers - also, you publish The Sun'
EU to accuse Ireland of giving Apple an overly peachy tax deal – report
Probe expected to say single-digit rate was unlawful
While you queued for an iPhone 6, Apple's Cook sold shares worth $35m
Right before the stock took a 3.8% dive amid bent and broken mobe drama
prev story

Whitepapers

A strategic approach to identity relationship management
ForgeRock commissioned Forrester to evaluate companies’ IAM practices and requirements when it comes to customer-facing scenarios versus employee-facing ones.
Storage capacity and performance optimization at Mizuno USA
Mizuno USA turn to Tegile storage technology to solve both their SAN and backup issues.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.