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The perils of Electronic Documents

A bit of History:

windyThe location was 17th st. N.W., Washington, DC. The sky was thick with rolling clouds – overcast. The weather was breezy and it was most definately taking a turn towards cooler temperatures. It was the kind of morning a commuter endures in Washington. Walking from the Metro, one was assaulted by the wind and had to make a concerted effort to hold together whatever coat had been grabbed on the way out of the house that morning. It was the fall of 1986 and President Reagan was in his second term as President.

oliver northLt.Col. Oliver North occupied an office in the “Old building” (the Old Executive Office Building) which was where many of the White House offices were located. He was posted to the National Security Council as the deputy director for political affairs. It was here that LtCol. North created electronic documents and, under the direction of Robert McFarlane, deleted documents that made reference to assistance given to the Contras by himself and the White House.

The documents detailing some of the interractions with the Contras would have been lost if it were not for the operational peculiarities associated with main-frame information systems. When LtCol. North hit the “delete” key the references to documents, once on his screen, were removed and the data was purged from the on-line system. However, the 9-track reels of tape that contained the many backups of the messages were still on the shelf and ready to be used to recover any datasets that had been corrupted or lost.

3278 terminalIt was the production control manager on the fourth floor of a 17th st building who was instructed to restore any datasets that might contain LtCol. North’s documents. The tapes were excluded from the normal tape rotation, where they would otherwise have had their data erased that week and been ready for another backup rotation.

The existance of the backup tapes negated the affect of LtCol. North using the ‘delete’ key on his IBM 3278 mod-2 computer terminal. Ultimately, the recovery of the datasets led to Lt.Col. North’s dismissal and the Iran-Contra debacle that subsequenntly unfolded.


The IT industry knew it was a problem, but now it was on everyone’s radar.

The ease with which Lt.Col. North could delete an important set of documents and the popularity of the event in the Information technology, commercial, and governmental sectors created a synergy that spun off an industry-wide awareness of the need for better controls and governance over electronic documents. Indirectly, LtCol. North continues to remind all organizations of the need to safeguard electronic documents from nefarious actions and day-to-day activities.

In the case of Mr. McFarlane instructing LtCol. North to destroy documents, there was a directed effort to remove incriminating and damaging evidence. In organizations today, it might be to eliminate all traces of a draft document, legal opinion, email message train, or incriminating financial spreadsheets.


Human nature won’t change, so, limit the potential for harm.

jacob brothers lying 2The overarching challenge for organizations is not that people like to cover their tracks when they are performing nefarious acts or behaving in a manner not in keeping with good ethics. That behavior has been a part of human existance for more than 3 millenia.  jacob sold into slaveryJust review the story of Jacob’s brothers and the lie they told their father of Jacob being eaten by a lion when they actually sold Jacob into slavery just to get rid of him. The situation with Jacobs brothers ended well for all concerned, but that’s not always the case.

Moving forward 3 millenia… The real challenge for organizations is how to manage the creation and existance of compromising information/documents while still maintaining good practices of data protection and business continuity. Unfortnately, there is no method upon which we can rely to keep our organizational information clear of questionable information and/or documents. There are, however, processes and procedures which work collaboratively to lessen the existance of these types of ducments and work to minimize adverse situations that could potentially arise.


The stage is set for the DMS performance.

stageEntering from stage left is the offending problem at hand: the ease of electronic document creation, modification and electronic document destruction. He is followed closely upstage by the everpresent necessity of performing backups with the shackles of document retention tightly bound to his ankles.

The performance ensues with people creating, modifying, and deleting documents. Suddenly, and without warning, a scrim descends from the procenium above, falling into place downstage of the actors – through which they are now observed still working. The scrim is a document management system (DMS). It is through the scrim/DMS that all activity of the organization is now seen and heard.

The DMS is introduced uniformly and comprehensively across the organization. From the point the scrim settled in front of the organization’s people, the DMS system injected itself into the most common office software packages available. The DMS now injects itself into all document workflows by adding an extra set of processes requiring the categorization, versioning, and implementation of document retention policies. The DMS intercedes in the process of document deletion, limiting the ability of any individual from being able to delete or materially change a document (remember Lt.Col. Oliver North).

The DMS shroud implements policies and procedures for document protection. However, it is document retention that balances out the equation of how to manage potentially harmful documents. Document retention, if applied correctly, will remove from the organization documents that are no longer needed. By removing unecessary documents, the organization is continually cleaning house which should statistically result in reducing potentialy harmful documents.


The caveat…

There’s always a caveat. If a compromising document is in a document category that has either a long shelf life or is classified as a permanent document; I suggest the following…

Make every effort to hire people of high moral character and focus less on job experience as an absolute job qualifier. People of high moral character tend not to conduct themselves in manners that could compromise their employers. Just saying…


So, how does this relate to COOP?

The process of migrating documents and data to backup data centers is a necessary component of a healthy COOP plan. However, make certain that your data migration plans include the judicious following of your document retention schedule. This is particularly important/relevant to maintaining a healthy document repository for the organization.

Be certain, as part of your product evaluative criteria, to determine if your document backup and archiving software has the ability to selectively remove documents from the archive/backup store. This is critical to avoiding the Lt.Col. North connundrum of removing, but not really removing documents.


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