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June 19, 2014

Enterprise Email 101: Understanding The IRS Email Loss

There is no shortage of flat-out incorrect commentary on the IRS's email system in the wake of revelations that Lois Lerner's emails from a critical period in 2009 to 2011 were lost. For example:


Ugh! Not only is that not right, it's not even wrong.

The best explanation I've seen so far for how the IRS's system works and could lead to Lerner's sent emails truly being lost (requiring recovery from the recipients, as they've reportedly been doing) is a piece by Megan McArdle, who has the benefit of having actually been a Microsoft Exchange administrator and knows how it's different than a Gmail account.

Familiarize yourself with Hanlon's razor first ...

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

... and then give it a read.

As it happens, I used to administer just the sort of e-mail systems that the IRS seems to be using. So I fired off a set of queries to the IRS about its e-mail system, its archiving policies and how the loss of data happened. Many of those queries remain unanswered, but I was given some documents that explain how the files could have been lost. My conclusion: It is plausible that this was an innocent coincidence. But it is only plausible if the IRS is managing its IT systems so badly that it is very easy to lose critical records -- or for abusive employees to destroy the evidence of their misbehavior.

Her piece tracks with an email I wrote to Ace and the cobloggers shortly after the story about Lerner's emails first came to light.

But here's a way it could happen:

1) old emails moved to archive on the local PC using Outlook's AutoArchive function (creates a local .pst file)
2) Exchange servers set up and run by incompetents and never backed up
3) local hard drive not backed up
4) local hard drive dies, taking the archive file(s) with it

If you believe the IRS's story, this is pretty much exactly what happened. As McArdle says, this is "moronic IT policy", but is it really so hard to believe that when Lois Lerner asked for miracles, Hans Gruber gave her the I-R-S?

People keep saying things like "the emails have to be on the server" or "they have to be backed up". Nope. This would be the case with competent IT management and properly-functioning data retention policies, but they aren't some natural feature jutting up out of the IT landscape. They require work.

And is it that hard to believe it's possible (probable?) that the IRS is just as incompetent at safeguarding data as the Obamacare rollout team was in creating a functional enrollment website?

Now, I'm not saying I believe all the details of the IRS's story. Far from it. But it's possible that aspects of their account are correct, and stating otherwise is foolish. What we should be doing instead is asking the logical questions that flow from their explanations.

For starters, I'd like to know what event led to Lerner's physical media being damaged in a manner that no data was recoverable. There are IT recovery firms that specialize in extracting data from hard drives that have significant physical damage. Were they consulted and when? What date was Lerner's physical drive destroyed?

And there's no way I believe that 6 other people were in the same boat as Lerner. Hard drives don't fail that often, and they certainly don't fail in clusters like this in such a way that no data was recoverable from any of them short of an EMP strike on the IRS tax exempt organizations division (which might be their next excuse, who knows?). We need the details on each such instance.

When the IRS figured out that their policies were resulting in massive data loss, to whom was this reported and when? What actions did they take to correct it? Why didn't they notify the various House committees investigating the IRS targeting of this data loss up-front?

And, given that what we think we know of IRS IT policy makes it appear "moronic", is there anything else we need to know to make sense of it? Like, for instance, the existence of a document repository that would mitigate data loss from local drive crashes and make short-term retention of backup tapes rational?



Update: A very good point by Brian in New Orleans from the comments to add to my list of questions:

I'd like to know the IRS' encryption policies for laptops. It was my understanding that all Gov't laptops require volume encryption (since a laptop was lost at an airport some years back). I worked for a contractor and all laptops had to have volume encryption due to this "policy".

It matters because a single bad sector on an encrypted drive can render 100% of the data irrecoverable. The laptop doesn't even have to "crash" so much as normal hard drive wear-and-tear and suddenly everything is gone.


Related (NSFW): Exclusive video of the IRS tax exempt organizations staff retreat, ca. June 2011

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posted by Andy at 04:31 PM

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