Remember Dustin Hoffman’s terrified confusion in "Marathon Man," when the Evil Nazi Dentist kept asking him, "Is it safe?" He didn’t know whether to say, "Yes, it’s safe, it’s very safe, it’s so safe you wouldn’t believe it," or to say "No. It’s not safe, it’s… very dangerous, be careful." That contradiction came to mind when I saw three stories this week whose collective message seemed to be, "Whatever you do with your data, you’re wrong."

As an eWEEK story in November warned us, the rules for storing data are different now: "a party must, without awaiting a discovery request, provide to other parties…a copy of, or a description by category and location of, all documents, electronically stored information, and tangible things that are in the possession, custody, or control of the party and that the disclosing party may use to support its claims or defenses…"

In short words, you’re accountable for knowing what you know and the form in which you know it: as that story summarizes one provision of the new Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, "businesses involved in
litigation must agree no later than 30 days before the first court date
exactly what electronically stored evidence will be in play.
" Whoa. Can you live up to this expectation if the occasion arises?

In particular, can you provide prompt discoverability of all the things you know that are only represented by e-mail threads? Gack. You know, I’m sure, that this is how huge numbers of decisions get made in your organization, and that it’s the only means by which many decisions and actions are ever documented, but eWEEK reports this week that "Only about 14 percent of all corporate e-mail accounts are currently being backed up and archived for future access."

Handling decisions in more structured forms, including the kind of automated workflows found in the latest releases of’s core applications, could put a lot of that incoherence under much better management.

But once you’re done storing everything, you may find that you’ve done too good a job: Simson Garfinkel at Technology Review has some cautionary tales about the bits that may bolt from the barn when a hard disk goes back to a vendor for service. As I’ve previously observed, the more different places data gets stored by different people, the harder it is to be sure that it’s only being saved where it should be.

No, it isn’t safe. Respect that, or be sorry.

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