Online Data Retention and Destruction Policies: Not so Simple?

How much storage space is available in the cloud today? Cloud storage providers including Amazon, Google and Microsoft can coy about the amount of disk space they really have. However, total online storage space for rent is already measured in exabytes (or quintillions of bytes, which means billions of billions of bytes). One billion bytes (a gigabyte) holds about 500 high resolutions photos or about 500,000 typewritten pages. In other words, people and organizations can store an awful lot of data in the cloud. But should they simply store data like that without a second thought?

Save it? Junk It?
Neither accidental information deletion nor unplanned retention are necessarily a good idea. Whether it’s a case of your personal data or data for an organization, there should be some conscious decision about the policy to be followed. Yet a recent survey by information management services company Iron Mountain gave the following breakdown of responses by businesses:

  • Answer 1 (29% of survey responses) – We Have an Organizational Retention Guide
    Suggestions for what to keep, what to trash, but no checks or controls
  • Answer 2 (25%) – We Keep Everything
    Possibly the least organized response and may leave a company exposed legally
  • Answer 3 (17%) – We Have A Formal Retention and Destruction Policy
    Classification of data across the organization with application of regulatory requirements
  • Answer 4 (16%) – We do Informal Deletion (User-defined)
    Democracy is a fine thing, but may be incompatible with a realistic data retention/deletion policy
  • Answer 5 (13%) – We Delete when Storage Space Runs Out
    Similar to Answer 2, noting that indiscriminate deletion may not be any better than retention.

Legal Considerations
Organizations without a clear data retention and destruction policy may find themselves in a difficult situation if a court order is issued for a search of their data. This may be either because they have stored compromising information that they were not required to store; or because actions to delete data after the search order has been issued may be interpreted as deliberate attempts to obstruct justice, which is a serious crime.
Take Professional Legal Advice About Online Data Rules
This article makes no claims to offer advice or recommendations: you should consult a qualified professional to find out how you should best be organizing your own data retain/destroy policy. But be aware that online data storage may not necessarily obey the same rules as in-house storage. When you store a data file on a computer you control directly, just pressing the ‘delete’ key leaves most of the file’s data intact and available for professionals to recover. However, you can delete it permanently by deliberately and completely overwriting its content with data gibberish.
Online however, you do not necessarily have this level of control over your rented storage space. Simply to optimize its own operations, an online provider may choose to copy your data to a different location, without bothering to do a full deletion of the old copy. However, it may be difficult for even experts to try to find the online storage space you were using before your data moved.
When You Terminate an Online Service
You may also decide to terminate your use of an online storage service, perhaps because you’ve found another service that better meets your needs. If so, then take precautions to ensure you don’t leave any confidential data exposed. If you start using storage space with a different provider, then ask about the possibility for the provider to completely erase your data if you stop using its service at some later date.