disappearing email

Gmail update sparks public records concern

At the end of April, Google announced several Gmail updates, including a new feature that would allow users to remove the option to forward, copy, download or print messages. It also offers senders the option to create expiration dates or revoke previously sent messages.

This caught the attention of National Freedom of Information Coalition, which advocates for access to public records and information. The organization's board President Mal Leary sent an open letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai warning of the new feature's unintended consequences.  

“Technology that allows the self-destruction of official, electronic public communications is not promoting transparency, and under most state open government laws, is illegal,“ Leary’s letter said.

The "confidential mode" feature is not yet live and there is very little information on it online, but a Google spokesperson clarified that administrators of the Google G Suite office applications platform will be able to control users' ability to both send and receive these messages.

“When confidential mode is launched for G Suite, admins will have the ability to enable or disable the feature in the control panel to prevent domain users from using confidential mode,” the spokesperson said. “In addition, domain administrators will also be empowered to reject messages sent in confidential mode to their users whether it originates from within their domain or not.”

The existence of this kind of technology, though, raises the question of whether public records laws are suitable for the way officials communicate today, according to Sunlight Foundation Executive Director John Wonderlich.

“Records management laws were not written with self-destructing messages in mind,” Wonderlich said. “I mean, when these laws were written that would have only been a thought experiment, and now it's a reality that we have to contend with.”

The expiring messages in Gmail would not be completely deleted. The message content would be deleted, but the recipient would retain the name and address of the original sender and the time  the message was received. Along with setting timers for message expiration, the “confidential mode” would also allow senders to set limits on what recipients could copy and download from an email. Senders would be able to make confidential-mode message content available again if they choose, according to someone familiar with the technology.

Federal agencies are responsible for remaining in compliance with federal records law, according to a statement by Jim Stossel from the Records Management Policy and Outreach Office at the National Archives and Records Administration. 

“Regardless of what platform an agency selects for their email, each agency is responsible for ensuring compliance with all records management guidance in Federal law and NARA regulations,” Stossel said. “This includes implementing and following the retention periods required by all applicable NARA-approved records retention schedules.”

Agencies could decide to enable a feature that would expire messages, he said, but it “must also comply with all applicable laws and regulations.”

Public records laws vary depending on the level of government and location, but federal agencies follow specific schedules for public records retention. An email about lunch orders might not have to stay around very long, but more important communications might need to be stored forever.

When this feature does roll out, governments may have some important questions about how to use it, Wonderlich said.

“If this is rolled out en masse without more thought about how it applies for governments, governments -- state, federal, local governments -- will urgently need to release guidance about when and if it's appropriate to use the feature as a government official,” he said.

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