58_security blanket

I recently had the privilege of co-presenting a session on Court Document Retention in Michigan with Kevin Bowling, Court Administrator for Ottawa County Circuit Court in Michigan.  I played Sancho Panza to Kevin’s Don Quixote.  The windmill against which Kevin has led the charge for years is Michigan’s requirement that court documents with a retention period greater than ten years must be retained in either paper or microfilm form.  Currently pending legislation and rules changes would remove this hurdle and replace it with requirements that would actually ensure the long-term, safe, secure preservation of documents in electronic format.

As with virtually all long-standing rules, the so-called “Human-Readable Format” requirement sprang from a very real concern.  Anyone who still has a shelf full of old phonograph records understands immediately:  The record can be in pristine condition; but who still has a turntable to play it on?  Likewise, with “electronic” documents, the concern was that advances and changes in platforms would render the originals essentially inaccessible.

True – insofar as it goes.  However, it turns out people are still listening to Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas; this despite the fact that Bing expired shortly after sinking his last putt decades ago, long before cd’s and iPods.  The music has been migrated through generations of technology so it can still be played twice an hour every day between Halloween and New Year’s Day.

In his quest to enlist support and make his case for changing the Human Readable requirement, Kevin points out the expense of compliance.  Moreover, he highlights the enormous lost opportunities for efficiencies and savings from ECM when the electronic records must be transferred to and managed as microfilm.  Furthermore, microfilm itself is far from permanent.  Over time, it degrades.  Replacement parts for microfilm readers are becoming difficult, if not impossible, to find.

In addition to these compelling arguments, there is one more very powerful reason to let loose of the Human Readable security blanket.  In a nutshell, storing a document as paper or microfilm is increasingly indistinguishable from destroying it altogether.

Note that, despite the retention requirements, the “official” document of record is the electronic instance – for very good reason.  The Human Readable version is close to unusable in today’s world.  It can’t be searched.  It can only be in one place at a time– a problem for paper and a show-stopper for microfilm–which has to be viewed on-site.

Worst of all, it is terribly insecure, although not in the way most people think.   Electronic documents, even if inaccurately indexed, can be located in numerous ways, across multiple keys or with search capabilities across both metadata and content.  With paper or microfilm, if the index is lost, corrupted, or inaccurate — the document is GONE!  It may last forever (doubtful); but it can never be found.  In fact, in some cases, no one will know if it ever existed in the first place.

Can’t happen?  What about all the cross references, Registers of Action, etc., etc.?  Well, the entire assumption of the Human Readable requirement is that ALL of those are gone/inaccessible due to the march of technology (or the complete return to a pre-electricity Stone Age).  Right?  We’re not talking about next week.  We’re talking about a hundred or more years from now.

Thus, ironically, the very concern that gave rise to the Human Readable requirement — guaranteed long-term accessibility — is the fundamental reason why Human Readable documents are no longer acceptable: they are essentially inaccessible by modern world standards.

The solution, as Kevin observes, is that the rules must REQUIRE permanent, periodic, structured review of the ongoing efficacy of the storage media.  The rules must mandate that as the technology changes, content will be migrated to newer media.  Arizona, for example, has adopted this approach.  Just as Bing never heard of MP3s, we have no idea what will be state-of-the-art for long-term document retention in thirty years, much less in two hundred.  But I’m betting it won’t be either paper or microfilm

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