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Government Wrestles With Social Media Records Retention Policies

May 28, 2009 (11:05 AM EDT)

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At the National Archives and Records Administration's annual conference Thursday, one keynote speaker asked the crowd of several hundred how many of the archivists in attendance were sold on the use of social media. Only a smattering raised their hands.

Clearly, it's a challenge for the government to figure out how to navigate complex archival and e-discovery regulations that require it to capture and store all sorts of new content in the age of social media, cloud computing, and seemingly endless storage.

"The federal government is in a constantly evolving records environment," Adrienne Thomas, acting archivist of the United States, said in a luncheon speech to the conference. "These are exciting and challenging times." Obama administration ambitions toward cloud computing and more openness only make that issue more complicated.

"Many of us in the federal records administrations have struggled with the implications of this new direction," Paul Wester, director of modern records programs at the National Archives, said in an interview. "We deeply believe in transparency and openness, but we are concerned about FOIA, HIPAA, the Privacy Act, personally identifiable information, and compliance with the Disability Act and Federal Records Act."

In a morning keynote address, Beth Noveck, deputy chief technology officer at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the lead official in President Obama's open government initiative, tried to reassure the records managers at the conference.

She mentioned a new Web site designed around the White House's open government initiative, which asks the public to contribute ideas that will eventually lead to a new policy on openness, including a category on records management. She also said that the National Archives and Records Administration was heavily involved in crafting Obama's transparency policy.

However, in other areas, audience response made it clear that some White House policies may be at odds with where some archivists stand today. Noveck admitted that though cloud computing is a top initiative of federal CIO Vivek Kundra, there are plenty of kinks to work out, especially in terms of records management issues like privacy and security. "It's a very big issue for government in terms of someone else to have control of our stuff," she said to guffaws and whispers of "You think?" from the audience.




Noveck also said that as storage becomes cheaper and cheaper, especially with the advent of cloud computing, worry about when and how to delete government records becomes less important, and she urged more work on data standardization and the use of data standards to avoid costly storage system upgrades as old data formats become obsolete.

After her speech, one conference attendee asked how government agencies should turn dynamic data into records. She said that tools that generate or allow dynamic data to be created -- such as wikis -- should be required to have automatic versioning.

Plenty of guidance on how to keep electronic records already exists, including new social media records. "We have the guidance and awareness, but then we have to figure out how to execute," Wester said. For example, there's guidance for crawling and harvesting Web sites, using PDF capture, making sure to use specific data formats like HTML or XML, a document released almost three years ago called "Implications of Recent Web Technologies for Records" that covers tools like wikis and RSS, and an online Toolkit for Managing Electronic Records.

Still, though, that's the National Archives. Federal agencies still have to implement that guidance. Plenty of challenges remain, including what records to keep, what to do with material created by nongovernment employees or posted on private-sector Web sites, when long-term preservation of online records is important, and how to use limited resources to deal with increasingly limitless online content. None of these questions has an easy or one-size-fits all answer, the event's speakers said.

Records managers are still worrying about exactly how to manage e-mail records, said Jason Baron, director of litigation for the National Archives and Records Administration. That alone should be a sign that the government won't figure out what to do with social media and cloud computing records anytime soon.


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