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3 min read
Commentary

Missing White House E-Mail -- Politics Or Bad Tech Policy?

The White House's assertion that as many as 5 million e-mails have gone missing has raised a lot of political hackles on both sides of the aisle and throughout the pundit-sphere over the last couple of years. Far less attention has been paid to a far more serious (and less politically secular) question: just what is the tech infrastructure underlying the White House's electronic communications?
The White House's assertion that as many as 5 million e-mails have gone missing has raised a lot of political hackles on both sides of the aisle and throughout the pundit-sphere over the last couple of years. Far less attention has been paid to a far more serious (and less politically secular) question: just what is the tech infrastructure underlying the White House's electronic communications?According to David Gewirtz, author of Where Have All the Emails Gone?, the missing mail -- whatever its political implications -- says a lot about White House IT policy, none of it good.

And the bad news doesn't get better.

Gewirtz has just released a report on this week's Congressional hearings into the missing mail. A few of the highlights (or, as the case may be, lowlights):

Up to 17 million Administration e-mails may be archived in thousands of Outlook .pst files, some of which approach the 2 gigabyte file-size limit imposed by 2003 and earlier versions of Outlook (and which Microsoft recommends against even for newer versions of Outlook.)

The fact that the White House uses Outlook was explained in testimony as a necessary migration from the previous White House system, Lotus Notes, which is characterized as a dead technology (which, of course, it isn't.)

Restorations of e-mail files from backup tapes have not been done, according to testimony, because of cost, which was estimated at approximately $50,000 per component. Even in an environment that routinely overpays for goods and services, this is an outstanding example of government inflation.

Again, I'm trying to leave the politics out of this -- and, to a certain extent, at least in the report that's available online, Gerwitz seems to be trying to as well.

What I'm interested in is whether or not there's any technical expertise on either side of this issue -- one Congressman compared Notes to Betamax -- and whether or not this issue is likely to help change the situation.

Surely the White House should be using more robust and reliable archiving technology than .pst files (anybody who's had one become corrupted knows how easily that can happen, and what a pain it is to try and restore it.)

Likewise, even a secrecy-obsessed Administration -- or, for that matter, company -- should have a solid and reliable archiving (and backup-and-restore system) in place, not an ad hoc system based on inflated costs (which Gewirtz argues might be a diversionary tactic.) In the case of business, compliance regulations require it -- in the case of the White House, the Presidential Records Act does as well.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the White House e-mail mess, the fact that there is a mess surrounding the most common and constant method communication in the highest office in the land should give us all pause.

Maybe it should even prompt us to lobby the next occupant of 1600 Penn. Ave. to bring some order, consistency and tech-savvy/tech-sense to White House electr0nic communications.

Just don't do the lobbying by e-mail.