Can you access copies of all email messages sent and received by your employees?

December 15th, 2014

As an email service provider, we are constantly asked by business owners to retrieve email messages received or sent by specific employees last month, last year, or many years ago.  The reasons are numerous and include:

  • Contractual disputes requiring proof of exactly what was said, and by whom
  • Inappropriate employee behavior requiring proof of what was said or done
  • Accusations of harassment requiring exact copies of the messages in question for analysis
  • Important business information or data that may have been sent and subsequently lost or deleted and now needs to be retrieved

It’s a good hypothetical to consider: what would happen if your organization suddenly needed copies of all email correspondences between two people from, say, two years ago?

It turns out that in many cases, such requests are made in vain. 

What about user email folders and accounts?

Messages in question may or may not be found in the regular and sent email folders of the users in question.  In all likelihood, they will not be unless the user is meticulous and not worried about his or her job.  Why?

  1. Many people download their email to their computers, deleting it from the server.  If these computers are lost, stolen, or reset, these messages may be lost.  Even if they aren’t lost, it still may be difficult in some cases to access the messages from the user’s computer, especially if the user has left the company or is under suspicion for wrongdoing.
  2. Many people delete old email after it is no longer needed.  Thus, messages from years ago may be long gone.
  3. Many people accidentally delete email anyway.  There is no guarantee that all the messages that you see in an email folder are all the ones in question.
  4. People engaged in something “shady” would be expected to cover their tracks, deleting compromising email messages and other data.

Relying on email currently in users’ email folders is an extremely unreliable way to ensure that you can access important old correspondence.

What about email backups?

Most email providers and IT shops perform backups of email these days.  These backups are generally snapshots in time of the email present in the email folders on your email server; a nightly backup of all email, for example, which is then kept for a certain number of days.

Backups are essential.  They allow you to restore deleted email folders and to find lost or deleted email messages.  However, they have some serious limitations that makes them inadequate insurance for the kind of business-critical email recovery in question:

  1. Not all messages sent or received will be in the backups. Only messages in your folders on the server when the backup is made will be included in the backups.  Messages that were never saved to a folder (e.g. if the user is not saving copies of some or all sent email) or which were deleted from folders (such as an inbound messages deleted from the INBOX right after it was received) will not be saved and will not be recoverable.
  2. Only messages on the server are backed up.  People who regularly download their email from the server to their computers will always have empty or nearly-empty folders on your company’s email server.  Those empty folders are being backed up.  The email on their computer may not be (unless you have explicitly set this up and have access to it).
  3. Backups are impermanent. Generally, backups are kept only for a relatively short period of time (e.g. weeks or months), so if you need messages from further back in time, you are likely out of luck.

What do you do?

The solution that gives you real insurance that you will have access to unmodified copies of all messages to and from your employees for years is to setup email archival.   With email archival:

  1. Copies of all sent and received emails are streamed in real time to an independent set of servers
  2. There, the messages are indexed, encrypted, and saved redundantly
  3. The messages are then available for you to search and download (but not edit, and generally not delete) for a number of years. The duration is often something that you can choose, but retention for up to 10 years is common.

Archival has the following advantages:

  1. All messages are captured
  2. Messages cannot be altered or deleted by employees — even by your system administrators and operations techs.
  3. Messages can be searched for and accessed through the archival portal at any time by management without the assistance of or knowledge of employees whose email may be under investigation.
  4. Messages are kept for a very long period of time, suitable for legal discovery and HIPAA compliance.

So, can you access copies of all email messages sent and received by your employees?

The answer is “yes” if you have email archival set up.  It is “hopefully”, “maybe”, or “no” otherwise.  Email archival is a form of insurance that most organizations actually use and are thankful for, and which other organizations only wish they had the foresight to setup once it is needed.  The marginal cost of email archival is small compared to the benefit of having it when you need it.

Do you think email archival would be good insurance for your organization?