Email Deletions and New 90-day Policy Raises Questions

By Assemblyman Will Barclay
The Governor’s office announced in 2013 that it would use Microsoft Office365, an email and software management system, to consolidate 27 agency email systems, improve access to applications, share calendars in a cloud-based system and save taxpayer dollars.

The software was recently implemented.  Many aspects about the new system make sense and will hopefully improve inter-agency communication.

What is troubling, however, is that last month, upon its implementation, reports circulated that thousands of state agency emails were deleted.

With the new system’s implementation, a 90-day automatic deletion policy has also be instituted.

This should be concerning to all who believe that we should have greater transparency in government.  The timing of the deletions is also suspect, as it comes on the heels of the latest corruption scandal in Albany involving one of the highest ranking officials in Albany, the Assembly Speaker.

Various advocacy groups, including those who consider themselves advocates for good government, suggest that the deletions infringe on the New York state Freedom of Information Law, a state law that allows any member of the public to file for and request government records.

In fact, a pending court case that involves the New York Racing Authority shed light on the problems with the email deletions just last week. The plaintiff’s lawyer received notice that emails requested from the defendant under the Freedom of Information Law could not be produced due to the recent deletions.

In light of advancements in technology, it is hard to believe that state emails could not be saved, either on a cloud storage system, a remote database that enables users to upload documents to a database through the internet, or another connected storage device.

Technology experts estimated that the new system put in place can save up to 30 years’ worth of data.

I’m not a technology expert but even if the new system has the capacity to store a fraction of this amount of data, it seems prudent to take all measures possible to retain the files.

These official communications generated by state agencies are made possible with taxpayer dollars, after all.  By comparison, the federal government maintains a policy that electronic communication such as emails are saved for seven years. So why delete?

Some of these questions and concerns were voiced by some of my legislative colleagues in Albany during the budget hearing on Public Protection late last month.

Margaret Miller, Chief Information Officer with the New York State Office of Information Technology Services, explained at the hearing that all emails older than 90 days would automatically be deleted unless state employees took measures to save their documents in a special retention folder.

The questions I have are similar to what my colleagues asked.

Why weren’t documents preserved?  Who directed the emails to be deleted?  How do state employees know which emails/documents will be needed at a later time?  Does the Office of Information Technology Service have the authority to change the 90-day deletion policy?  How do other states handle email/data storage?

Many of the questions remained unanswered at the hearing, as Miller was appointed in December.

The legislature has asked that she report back with findings.

Email is a large part of how our government communicates with the public.

Without adequate records, the public will have a harder time holding the state accountable.

What also remains to be seen is whether this will cost the state more in settlement monies if the state can’t adequately defend itself in court with proper records.

I support legislation in the Assembly to change the 90-day automatic deletion policy and favor greater transparency in Albany.

Coincidentally, presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has come under the microscope recently for using a private email system for conducting official business as Secretary of State.

This was in contrast to how email communication was supposed to be managed, according to news media reports, and may interfere with the investigation of Benghazi attacks.

This shows too how email communication from just three years ago can later become significant and should be used as a guide for our state’s policy.

If you have any questions or comments on this or any other state issue, or if you would like to be added to my mailing list or receive my newsletter, please contact my office.

My office can be reached by mail at 200 N. Second St., Fulton, NY 13069, by e-mail at [email protected] or by calling (315) 598-5185.