New Scandal Renews Old Record-Keeping Issues

An Excerpt From The Archives.  This article pertains to the new field of computer evidence in criminal investigations, and how they proceeded to enact new legistlation and rules for that specific type of action.

Various websites pertaining to electronic security have cropped up helping people to secure their data and make their computers less hacker and virus friendly.  But it’s interesting to look back 30 some years and see how the information age formed and how rudimentary things were back in the day.


Some pundits feel it unfair to equate the Iran-Contra fiasco to Watergate, pointing out the many dissimilarities in the two cases. They’re probably right, especially when it comes to tracking down the documentation of what really happened.

In this regard Watergate was fairly simple, involving only voice recording systems. It has been said that Nixon could have salvaged his presidency if only he had destroyed the Oval Office tapes early in the game. Instead, the complete record was uncovered, except for the infamous 18 1/2-minute gap in his secretary’s transcription machine tape.

Those Watergate voice recordings seem a bit old-fashioned today, in this era of word processing and electronic mail. While Oliver North and his secretary were busily feeding documents into their shredder, they apparently forget all about their IBM office automation system, which yielded electronic data that helped pinpoint what really happened.

Though it may aid in getting to the bottom of the Iran-contra mess, the availability of electronically stored data from a computer system raises many troublesome issues. Some of these involve legalities, others have to do with unresolved questions about records management and “ownership” of data.

On the legal front, it seems clear that justice could be obstructed by purging word processing files just as easily as by physically destroying evidence, though the courts have been struggling for years with the question of “admissibility” of computer media that lacks hard-copy equivalents.

Criminal proceedings aside, it is not clear whether informal staff documents stored in an executive branch word processor should be subject to congressional or other outside scrutiny.

Under the doctrine of “executive privilege” it has been pretty well accepted that staff papers and other planning memoranda underlying executive branch policy development need not be disclosed. To hold otherwise would inhibit the give and take needed to resolve conflicting viewpoints in arriving at official government policy. Civil servants and political appointees alike would be inhibited from documenting their views and recommendations if they knew such documents might be obtained by outside proponents of differing political positions. In this respect, it is reasonable to argue that informal electronic documentation, like written notes and memoranda, need not be made publicly available.

Privacy advocates are wont to assert that the contents of one’s office desk should be considered “personal” in the same sense that office telephone conversations must not be tapped. Presumably, this rule of thumb also applies to diskettes produced on one’s desktop PC or to electronic messages even when the latter are stored in a central switching computer. But to my knowledge,

there has never been a case of a law enforcement agency seeking a court order to tap an electronic mail system in the interests of a criminal investigation.

The point to keep in mind is that while there is some analogy between traditional hard-copy documentation and that stored in electronic systems, the analogy is not perfect and many fuzzy areas remain.

Records management specialists have been diligent in establishing “records retention schedules’ for various classes of documents, with the objective of preserving those of most lasting value for the longest period of time. But there is as yet no comparable retention schedule for diskettes, tapes, hard disks, ROMs and the other forms of electronic storage media that are proliferating at a rate faster than that of the Asian cockroach.

Archivists and historians worry that the records of government decision-making in the electronic age simply won’t be available to future generations, now that people have taken to keyboarding rather than writing things down.

If there is a silver lining to a Watergate or an Irangate, it may lie in focusing attention on how the government maintains its records. And maybe it will stimulate those engaged in the oft-trumpeted practice of “information resources management” to pay more attention to paperless “documents.”



Source Citation   (MLA 7th Edition)

Head, Robert V. “New scandal renews old record-keeping issues.” Government Computer News 27 Mar. 1987: 27.