You just happened to lose the e-mail of embroiled ex-IRS official Lois Lerner? You expect the American public to believe that?
Yes, actually, you should. Let me explain…
If the Healthcare.gov debacle should have taught the American public and news media anything, it’s that the United States government isn’t the best judge of determining contractor capabilities when it comes to Information Technology (IT) projects. How much does it cost to build a website – mind you, one that didn’t work in the beginning? Well if you’re a federal contractor, CGI Federal in this case, it said it could do so for $76 million dollars and it actually cost them $111M with the government obligating $196M! (source: Washington Post). With that in mind, does it really surprise you that the IRS can’t recover e-mails of a top official?
Let’s get technical for a second, and in turn, explain how these “lost” e-mails are completely plausible. Many personal e-mail providers such as Google or Yahoo or Outlook.com offer large amounts of storage for your e-mail. This allows you to store large amounts of old e-mail without ever having to worry about deleting them. Remember the days of receiving an e-mail warning that you’re out of space? With most personal e-mail providers, this is no longer the case however for business, and most especially, the federal government, this still holds true.
From a business tools perspective, the federal government still almost entirely relies on Microsoft Office – to include Microsoft Exchange and Outlook. While Google or Yahoo have multiple large data centers with vast amounts of storage for your e-mail, federal agencies have much smaller, individual data centers with only a tiny portion of storage space compared to the large Internet giants. As a result, someone who has a government e-mail address (e.g. @irs.gov) will be limited by the amount of storage on hand to that agency. From my experience, 100MB (yes, megabytes) to 1GB is the range to expect for a federal government e-mail account.
So how does one deal with this minuscule amount of individual e-mail storage without running out of space? Simple. Microsoft Outlook provides for offline storage of e-mail in PST (Personal Storage Table) files. These allow a end-user to pull e-mails out of the e-mail server sitting in the data center and put them into a file that is saved on the end-user’s local desktop. I’m sure you can see what comes next. Now that the e-mail is no longer on the server, once said user’s PST gets corrupted or worse, their desktop crashes, it becomes next to impossible to recover the e-mail that was saved to an offline PST.
But you say, surely they had backups of these e-mails! Sure – but for only a small period of time. Outside of critical items, backups of the e-mail server would only be retained for a short period – maybe six months to a year – before the backup media was reused. Imagine the cost the federal government would have to pay to a contractor if they asked for permanent backup storage of all e-mails, documents, etc… And lest you think they’d be able to restore a backup of Lois Lerner’s desktop, let’s not kid ourselves here. It is highly unlikely they were doing any backups of end-user desktops. With over ten years of IT experience in the federal government sector, only in recent months have I found the first federal agency that does desktop backups – and it’s only specific folders at that!
So yes, Lois Lerner’s e-mails were lost. Mainly because the federal government’s IT infrastructure across most agencies still follows practices of the ’90s. Cloud infrastructure (e.g. Google Apps) are only just being considered by many federal agencies and even while under consideration, they’re hitting a brick wall due to both the lobbying of Microsoft and the long-term “experience” of senior acquisition officials with Microsoft’s suite of tools. Throw in federal contractors who low bid contracts and are not able to provide salaries that would bring in experienced IT professionals and you’re just asking for “lost email” problems.
I’m sure though the IRS provides the proper financial resources however for backups and retention of tax data. Now if only that was lost!