Policy for saving electronic records applies to PCs only, Justice asserts

In what appears to be a change of course, the Justice Department now adamantly contends
that a disputed federal policy on saving electronic records applies only to PCs.

The Justice Department and Public Citizen, a Washington public interest group, have
been arguing the point in a series of letters to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the
District of Columbia.

The Court of Appeals in October heard the government’s appeal of a ruling by
District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman that declared the General Records Schedule 20 policy
null and void [GCN, Oct. 26, Page 1]. GRS-20 let
agencies erase electronic documents deemed records as long as they were saved in some

The government and Public Citizen are awaiting the appeals court’s decision, which
likely will come down sometime next month.

During the hearing, Justice attorney Matthew M. Collette told the court that the
National Archives and Records Administration considers GRS-20 as applicable only to files
on desktop computers that contain data that is neither searchable nor indexed.

But Public Citizen officials and lawyers said the government had not previously offered
the PC-only explanation.

In an Oct. 21 letter to the court, Public Citizen attorney Michael Tankersley said
Collette’s argument is new and inconsistent with GRS-20 and the government’s
earlier petitions to Friedman.

When NARA adopted GRS-20, it did not address the ability to search documents but rather
required that the documents be stored in a record-keeping system, Tankersley said.

“By its language, GRS-20 gives agencies the option of destroying the electronic
records from … applications after ‘they have been copied to … paper or
microform for record-keeping purposes’—regardless of whether the electronic
records are on a live desktop computer, a network, a central data processing computer,
offline storage or elsewhere,” he said.

In a response letter, Collette defended his assertion.

“The portions of GRS-20 being challenged in this case cover only electronic
records on live desktop computer applications and do not cover records stored in
record-keeping systems, whether electronic or paper,” he said.

Public Citizens’ “contention that GRS-20 allows the deletion of records from
systems such as central data processing computers and offline storage facilities is
misplaced,” Collette said.

Rick Barry of Barry Associates, an electronics records management company in Arlington,
Va., said both Justice and Public Citizen are “factually correct in important ways
… even where they appear to be much at odds with one another.”

Justice and NARA are making the commonsense case that records maintained in
record-keeping systems are not at issue because such systems are generally maintained on
LANs, enterprise servers or mainframes, he said.

Desktop systems are not generally considered record-keeping systems because they are
typically not accessible by other staff members and are not fully searchable, said Barry,
who served as an independent representative on NARA’s Electronic Records Workgroup,
which has proposed policy replacements to GRS-20.    


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