The Climategate email network infrastructure

Computer Room 1, University of East Anglia Jan 13, 2009 - somewhere in here is the email and the data

Guest Post by David M. Hoffer

Since both ClimateGate 1&2 there has been considerable confusion in regard to how the emails were obtained, how the FOIA requests were managed, and what was or wasn’t possible in that context.  There is no simple answer to those questions.

The ClimateGate emails span a period of nearly two decades.  During that time period, email systems evolved substantially in terms of technology, implementation, operational procedures, and the job descriptions of those responsible for them.  Other technologies such as backup systems, archive, and supporting technologies for legal compliance also changed (as did the laws themselves).  Saying exactly what was and wasn’t possible for such simple actions as deleting an email have completely different answers over time, and also based on the technology that was implemented at any given time.  With so many moving targets, it is impossible to draw any conclusions to a 100 percent certainty.

This article is written to cover the basics of how email systems and their supporting infrastructure work, and how they have evolved over time.  With that as a common background, we can then discuss everything from the simple questions regarding who could delete what  (and when), how the emails might have been obtained, and possibly most interesting of all, raise some serious questions about the manner in which the FOIA requests were handled at the CRU.

EMAIL 101

There are many, different email systems, and many different ways for end users to access them.  The basics are common to all of them however.  Each user has a “client” that allows them to access their email.  It could be an internet browser based client such as the ones used by Hotmail and Gmail, or it could be an email client that runs on your desk top computer like Outlook or Eudora.  For the purposes of this discussion I am going to discuss how things work from the perspective of an email client running on a desk top computer.

The email client connects an email server (or servers in a very large implementation).  To send an email to someone on a different email server, the two servers must “talk” to each other.  In most cases they do so over the internet.   How the clients interact with the servers however, is part of understanding why deleting an email that you sent (or received) is not straight forward.  The reason is that an email is never actually “sent” anywhere.  Once you write an email it exists on the disk drive of the computer the client software is installed on.  Press “send” and it goes….nowhere.  It is still there, exactly as it was before you “sent” it.

A copy however, has now been sent to the email server you are connected to.  That email server makes yet another copy and sends it to the email server the recipient is connected to.  That email server then makes still one more copy and sends it to the email client on the recipient’s computer, which in turn writes it to the local hard drive.  There are now a minimum of four copies of that one email.

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But wait, there may be more copies.  When researchers first started exchanging information via email, they were commonly years ahead of the rest of the world.  Most large organizations had central IT shops, but they ran financial applications for the most part, email was a curiosity at best.  Many researchers were left to run their own email systems, and it wasn’t that hard to do.  Solaris was the UNIX operating system in vogue in those days, and Solaris came with a pretty good email system built in called Sendmail.  There were many other options too.  The bottom line was that early email systems were frequently run by researchers on their own computers.

As time went on, email became more common, and it became more important.  The volume of data, performance matters, and security were all becoming beyond the skill set of anyone but someone whose full time job it was to run IT (Information Technology) systems.  Researchers began giving up ownership of their own email system and central IT shops took over.  Email was becoming mission critical, and a lot of data was being stored in email systems along with records of contract negotiations and other important “paper” trails.  Losing email was becoming a painful matter if important information disappeared as a result.  As a consequence, the systems that protected the data on email systems also began to mature and be run professionally by IT departments.

The early email systems were just a single server with local hard drives.  As they grew in capacity and overall usage, plain old hard drives could no longer keep up.  Storage arrays emerged which used many hard drives working together to increase both capacity and performance.  Storage arrays also came with  interesting features that could be leveraged to protect email systems from data loss.  Two important ones were “snapshots” and “replication”.

Snapshots were simply point in time copies of the data.  By taking a snapshot every hour or so on the storage array, the email administrator could recover from a crash by rolling back to the last available snapshot and restarting the system.  Some storage arrays could handle keeping a few snapshots, others could maintain hundreds.  But each snapshot was actually a full copy of the data!  Not only could a storage array store many copies of the data, consider the question of deletion.  If an email was received and then deleted after a snapshot, even by the central IT department itself, the email would still exist in the last snapshot of the data, not matter what procedure was used to delete it from the email system itself.

What if the storage array itself crashed?  Since the storage arrays could replicate their data to other storage arrays, it wasn’t uncommon to have two arrays and two email servers in a computer room so that no matter what failed, the email system could keep on running.  What if the whole computer room burned down?  Replication to another storage array at a completely different location is also very common, and should the main data centre burn down, the remote data centre would take over.  Keep in mind as you think this through that the ability of the storage arrays to replicate data in this fashion is completely and totally independent of the email system itself.

Early email systems were, as mentioned before, most often a single server with internal hard drives.  A modern “enterprise class” email system would be comprised of many servers and storage arrays more like this:

image

If you recall that just sending an email makes, at minimum, four copies, consider what “one” copy on a large email system actually translates to.  In the figure above, there are two copies on the storage arrays in the data centre.  If snapshots are being used, there may be considerably more.  Plus, there is at least one more copy being replicated to a remote data center, which also may have regular snapshots of data.  That’s a LOT of copies of just one email!  And we haven’t even started talking about backup and archive systems yet.

Let’s return to the question of deleting email.  It should be plain to see that in terms of current email technology, deleting an email just from the email system itself is not a simple task if your intention is to erase every single copy that ever existed.

As an end user, Phil Jones is simply running an email client connected to an email server run by somebody else.  He has no control over what happens on the server.  When he deletes an email, it is deleted from his email client (and hence the hard drive on his computer), and from his view of his emails on the email server.  Technically it is possible to set up the email server to also delete the email on the server at the same time, but that is almost never done, and we’ll see why when we start discussing backup, archive, and compliance.

On the other hand, are we talking about what was most likely to happen when Phil Jones deleted an email in 2009?  Or what was most likely to happen when Phil Jones deleted an e-mail in 1996?  The answers would most likely be entirely different.  In terms of how email systems have been run in the last ten years or so however, while it is technically possible that Phil Jones hit delete and erased all possible copies of the email that he received, this would have done nothing to all the copies on the sender’s desk top and on the sender’s email server… and backup systems.  Let’s jump now into an explanation of additional systems that coexist along with the email system, and make the possibility of simply deleting an email even more remote.

Backup Systems

Just as we started with email and how it worked at first and then evolved, let’s trace how backup systems worked and evolved.  There are many different approaches to backup systems, but I’ll focus here on the most common, which is to make a copy of data to a tape cartridge.

At first, backup was for “operational” purposes only.  The most common method of making a backup copy of data for a server (or servers) was to copy it to tape.  The idea was that if a disk drive failed, or someone deleted something  inadvertently, you could restore the data from the copy on tape.  This had some inherent problems.  Suppose you had a program that tracked your bank account balance.  But for some reason you want to know what the bank account balance was a week ago, not what it is today.  If the application didn’t retain that information, just updated the “current” balance as it went, you would have only one choice, which would be to restore the data as it existed on that specific day.  To do that, you’d need one tape for each day (or perhaps one set of tapes for each day in a larger environment).  That starts to be a lot of tape fast.  Worse, as data started to grow, it was taking longer to back it up (and the applications had to be shut down during that period) and the amount of time at night where people didn’t need their applications running kept shrinking as companies became more global.

Several approaches emerged, and I will be covering only one.  The most common  by far is an approach called “weekly full, daily incremental”.  The name pretty much describes it.  Every weekend (when the backup window is longest), a full copy of the data is made to tape.  During the week, only what changed that day is copied to tape.  Since changes represent a tiny fraction of the total data, they could be run in a fraction of the time a full copy could.  To restore to any given day, you would first restore the last “full copy” and then add each daily “incremental” on top until you got to the day you wanted.

This worked fine for many organizations, and larger ones bought “tape libraries” which were exactly what they sound like.  They would have slots for dozens, sometimes hundreds, of tape cartridges, several tape drives, and a robot arm that could change tapes for both backup processes and for restore processes.  The problem was that the tape library had to be as close as possible to the servers so that data could be copied as fast as possible (performance degrades sharply with distance).   The following depicts the email system we’ve already looked at, plus a tape backup system:

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By making regular copies of data to tape, which was a fraction of the cost of disk storage, the IT department could have copies of the data, exactly as it existed on any given day, and going as far back as the capacity of the tape library (or libraries) would allow.  Now try deleting an email from say a year ago.  In addition to all the copies on disk, there are at least 52 copies in the tape library.  Since we have a tape library however, it is easy to make still more copies, automatically, and most organizations do.

Disaster Recovery

What if there was a major flood, or perhaps an earthquake that destroyed both our local and remote data centers?  In order to protect themselves from disaster scenarios, most IT shops adopted an “off site” policy.  Once the backup was complete, they would use the copy of the data on tape to make… another copy on tape.  The second set of tapes would then be sent to an “off site” facility, preferably one as far away as practical from the data centers themselves.

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Consider now how many copies of a given email now exist at any given time.  Unlike that financial application whose “current account balance” is constantly changing, email, once received, should never change.  (But it might which is a security discussion just as lengthy as this one!).  Provided the email doesn’t change, there are many copies in many places, and no end user would have the security permissions to delete all of them.  In fact, in a large IT shop, it would take several people in close cooperation to delete all the copies of a single email.  Don’t organizations ever delete their old data?

Data Retention

The answer to that question can only be answered by knowing what the data retention policy of the organization is.  Many organizations just kept everything until the cost of constantly expanding their storage systems, tape libraries and the cost of housing off site tapes started to become significant.  Many organizations decided to retain only enough history on tape to cover themselves from a tax law perspective.  If the retention policy was implemented correctly, any tapes older than a certain period of time would be removed from the tape library and discarded (or possibly re-used and overwritten).  The copies in the offsite storage facility would also be retrieved to be either destroyed or re-used so that the offsite data and he onsite data matched.

Archive

As email systems grew, the backup practices described above became problematic.  How long people wanted to keep their email for was often in conflict with the retention periods for financial purposes.  They were designed for general purpose applications with ever changing data.  As the amount of data in an email system started to grow exponentially due to ever larger attachments, graphics, and volume, the expense and pressure on even an “incremental” backup window became enormous.  That’s where archive started to emerge as a strategy.  The storage arrays that supported large email systems were very expensive because they had to be ultra reliable as well as ultra high performance.  But 99% of all emails were being read on the day they were sent… and never again.  Only if something made an older email important… evidence of who said what and when from a year ago for example, would an email be accessed again after it was a few days old.  So why house it on the most expensive storage the organization  owned?  And why back it up and make a copy of it every week for years?

Many organizations moved to an “archive” which was simply a way of storing email on the cheapest storage available.  If someone needed an email from a year ago, they would have to wait minutes or perhaps hours to get it back.  Not a big issue provided it didn’t need to be done very often.  Some organizations used low performance low cost disk, some even went so far as to write the archive to tape.  So, for example, the email you sent and received in the last 90 days might open and close in seconds, but something from two years ago might take an hour.  Not only did this reduce the cost of storing email data, but it had the added benefit of removing almost all the email from the email system and moving it to the archive.  Since the archive typically wasn’t backed up at all, the only data the backup system had to deal with in its weekly full daily incremental rotation was the last 90 days.  This left an email system, with the integrated backup and archive systems, looking something like this:

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For most IT shops, if you ask them how many copies of a given email they have if it was sent a year ago, they can’t even answer the question.  Lots.

What does that mean in terms of FOIA requests?  Plenty.

Compliance

The world was rolling along quite nicely using these general techniques to protect data, and then the law got involved.  Enron resulted in Sarbanes Oxley in the United States and similar laws in other countries  FOIA came in existence in most western countries.  Privacy laws cropped up.  Suddenly IT had a new problem, and a big one.  The board of directors was suddenly asking questions about data retention.  The IT department went from not being able to get a meeting with the board of directors to having the board shining a spot light on them.  Why?

Because they (the board of directors) could suddenly go to jail (and some did) because of what was in their email systems.  Worse, they could even go to jail for something that was NOT in their email system.  The laws in most jurisdictions took what you could delete, and what you could not delete, to a whole new level.  Worse (if you were a member of the board of directors) you could be held responsible for something an employee deleted and shouldn’t have…. or didn’t delete and should have.  Bingo.  The board of directors is suddenly no longer interested in letting employees decide what they can and cannot delete, and when.  The same applied in most cases to senior management of public institutions.

Back to the original question.  Could Phil Jones have deleted his emails?  When?  In the early days when his emails were all in a server run by someone in his department?  Probably.  When the email system moved to central IT and they started backing it up regularly?  No.  He would only be able to permanently delete any given email provided that he had access to all the snapshot copies on all the storage arrays plus the archive plus all the backup tapes (offsite and onsite).  Fat chance without the express cooperation of a lot of people in IT, and the job of those people, based on laws such as FOIA, SOX and others was to expressly prevent an end user such as Phil Jones from ever doing anything of the sort, because management had little interest in going to jail over something someone else deleted and shouldn’t have.

So…did CRU have a backup system?  Did they send tapes off site?  Did they have a data retention policy and what was it?  Did they have an archive?  If they had these things, when did they have them?

With all that in mind, now we can look at two other interesting issues:

  • What are the possible ways the emails could have been obtained?
  • Were the proper mechanisms to search those emails against FOIA requests followed?

Short answer: No.

In terms of how the emails could have been obtained, we’ve seen various comments from the investigation into ClimateGate 1 that they were most likely obtained from accessing an email archive.  This suggests that there at least was an email archive.  Without someone laying out a complete architecture drawing of the email systems, archive system, backup system, data retention policies and operational procedures, we can only guess at how the system was implemented, what options were available, and what options not.  What we can conclude however is that at some point in time, an archive was implemented.  Did it work like the description above about archives?  Probably.  But there are many different archive products on the market, and some IT shops refer to their backup tapes as an archive just to confuse matters more.

In addition, without knowing how the investigators came to the conclusion that the emails were obtained from the archive, we don’t have any way to assess the quality of their conclusions.  I’m not accusing them of malfeasance, but the fact is without the data, we can’t determine if the conclusions are correct.  Computer forensics is an “upside down” investigation in which the “evidence” invariably points to an innocent party.  For example, if someone figured out what Phil Jones username and password was, and used them to download the entire archive, the “evidence” in the server logs would show that Phil Jones did the deed.  It takes a skilled investigator to sort out what Phil Jones did (or didn’t do) from what someone using Phil Jones credentials did (or didn’t do).  So let’s put aside what the investigators say they think happened and just take a look at some of the possibilities:

Email Administrator – anyone who had administration rights to the email system itself could have made copies of the entire email database going back as far as the oldest backup tapes retained with little effort.  So…who had administration rights on the email system itself?  There’s reason to believe that it was not any of the researchers, because it is clear from many of the emails themselves that they had no idea that things like archives and backup tapes existed.

Storage Administrator – In large IT shops, managing the large storage arrays that the application servers are attached to is often a job completely separate from application administration jobs such as running the email system.  Since the storage administrator has direct access to the data on the storage arrays, copying the data from places such as the email system and the archive would be a matter of a few mouse clicks.

Backup Administrator – This again is often a separate job description in a large organization, but it might be rolled in with storage administration.  The point being however, that whoever had backup administration rights had everything available to copy with a few mouse clicks.  Even in a scenario where no archive existed, and copying the data required restoring it from backup tapes that went back 20 years, this would have been a snap for the backup administrator.  Provided that the tapes were retained for that length of time of course, the backup administrator could simply have used the backup system itself, and the robotics in the tape library, to pull every tape there was with email data on it and copy the emails to a single tape.  This is a technique called a “synthetic full” and could easily run late at night when it would just look like regular backup activity to the casual observer.  The backup administrator could also “restore” data to any hard drive s/he had access too… like their personal computer on their desk.

Truck Driver – yes, you read that right, the truck driver.  Google keywords like “backup tapes stolen truck” and see what you get.  The results are eye popping.  The companies that specialize in storing tapes off site for customers send a truck around on a regular basis to pick up the weekly backup tapes.  There have been incidents where entire trucks (and the tapes they were carrying) were stolen.  Did anyone steal CRU’s tapes that way?  Probably not.  The point is however that once the tapes leave your site and are entrusted to another organization for storage, they could be copied by anyone from the truck driver to the janitor at the storage site.  Assembling 20 years of email from backup tapes could be a real hassle of course.  On the other hand, an offsite storage facility frequently has as part of the service it provides to clients…great big tape libraries for automating copying of tapes.   Encryption of backup tapes was a direct response to incidents in which tapes with valuable (and/or embarrassing information) wound up in the wrong hands.

But encryption has only been common for a few years.  That raised an interesting theoretical question.  The last email release ends in 2009, and the rest of the release is, in fact, encrypted.  One can only wonder, does the CRU encrypt their backup tapes, and if so, when did they start doing that?

Administrative Foul Up – One of the biggest “cyber crimes” in history occurred when a company doing seismic processing for oil companies cycled the tapes back to their customers for the next round of data, and sent old tapes to different customers.  One of their customers figured it out, and started checking out the data they were being sent which was from their competitors.  It wasn’t the first time it happened, and it wasn’t the last time.

Janitor – Let’s be clear, I’m not accusing anyone, just making a point.  There’s an old saying about computer security.  If you have physical access, then you have access.  Anyone with physical access to the computer room itself, and the right technical skills, could have copied anything from anywhere.

The FOIA Requests

There are dozens of emails that provide glimpses into both how the email systems at CRU were run, and how FOIA requests were handled.  Some of them raise some very interesting questions.  To understand just how complex compliance law can be, here’s a brief real world story.  Keep in mind as you read this that we’re talking about American law, and the CRU is subject to British law which isn’t quite the same.

In the early days of compliance law, a large financial services firm was sued by one of their clients.  His claim was that he’d sent instructions via email to make changes to his investment portfolio.  The changes hadn’t been made and he’d suffered large losses as a result.  His problem was that he didn’t have copies of the emails he’d sent (years previous) so his legal case was predicated upon the financial firm having copies of them.  To his chagrin, the financial firm had a data retention policy that required all email older than a certain date to be deleted.  The financial firm figured they were scot free.  Here’s where compliance law starts to get nasty.

A whistle blower revealed that the financial firm had been storing backup tapes in a closet, and had essentially forgotten about them.  A quick inspection revealed that a number of the backup tapes were from the time in question.  The financial services firm asked the judge for time to restore the data from the tapes, and see what was on them that might be relevant.  The judge said no.

The judge entered a default judgment against the financial services firm awarding the complainant  $1.3 Billion in damages.  The ruling of the court was that the financial services firm was guilty by virtue of the fact that they had told the court the data had been deleted from that time period, but it hadn’t been.  They had violated their own data retention policies by not deleting the data, and were guilty on that basis alone.  Wake up call for the financial industry…and everyone else subject to compliance law, which includes FOIA requests.

Suddenly deleting information when you said you hadn’t was a crime.  Not deleting information when you said you had, was a crime.  Keeping information could wind up being used against you.  Not keeping information that it turns out you were required to keep (by the tax department for example) could be used against you.  No one serious about compliance could possibly take the risk of allowing end users to simply delete or keep whatever they wanted.  From their own personal accounts certainly, but not from the company email server.  Ever.

In that context, let’s consider just a few words from one email in which Phil Jones, discussing with David Palmer whether or not he’d supplied all the email in regard to a specific FOIA request, says “Eudora tells me…”

These few words raise some serious questions.  Eudora is an email client, similar to the more familiar Outlook.  So, let us ask ourselves:

Why was David Palmer relying on Phil Jones to report back all the emails he had?  Compliance law in most countries would have required that David Palmer have the appropriate search be done by the IT department.  This would have captured any emails deleted by Phil Jones that were still retained by the CRU based on their data retention policy.

Was David Palmer aware of the proper procedure (to get the search done by IT)?  If not, was he improperly trained and who was responsible for properly training him in terms of responding to FOIA requests?  If he was aware… well then why was he talking to Phil Jones about it at all?

Phil Jones specifically says that “Eudora tells me” in his response to Palmer.  Since Phil Jones evidently did the search from his own desk top, the only emails he could search for were ones that he had not deleted.  But, that doesn’t mean he found all the emails subject to the FOIA request, because email that he did delete was more than likely retained on the CRU email server according to their data retention policies.  As in the case of the financial company, the CRU may well have said they didn’t have something that they did.  In fact, we can surmise this to be highly likely.  There are multiple emails showing up in which, for example, Phil Jones says he is going to delete the message right after sending it.  But we now have a copy of that specific message.  Did he send it and then forget to delete it?  Probably not.  The more likely answer is that he did delete it, not realizing that the CRU data retention policy resulted in a copy being left on the server.  If the CRU responded to an FOIA request and didn’t include an email that met the FOIA parameters because they failed to search all their email instead of just the email that Phil Jones retained in his personal folder… well, in the US, there would be some prosecutors very interested in advancing their careers…

“Eudora tells me” is even more curious from another perspective.  Why “Eudora”?  Why didn’t he say that he’d searched all his email?  Why specify that he’d used the search capabilities in Eudora?  Personally, I have three email systems that I connect to, and a different email client for each one.  Searching all my email and searching all my email in just one email client are two completely different things.  Most interesting!

While I am comfortable discussing with IT shops how to architect email systems to protect data and properly service legal requirements such as FOIA requests, I have to admit that I wouldn’t know where to start in terms of submitting one.  If I did, I just might ask for all the emails they have pertaining to FOIA requests, and I’d be specific about wanting all the email, regardless of it being in the main email system, the archives, or on backup media, and all the email that ever existed, regardless of having been deleted by end users.  Then for the capper, I’d ask for their data retention policy and see if they managed to meet it in their response.

Just sayin’

dmh

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Dale

“But each snapshot was actually a full copy of the data!”
Just want to point out that a snapshot is technically not a full copy of the data. A snapshot is the difference between the old snapshot and the new. The first snapshot is a full copy, but one’s after that are just the differences.
Replication is a full copy though, a replica of the original.

Ripper

Great post.

Larry Kirk

A fascinating tour de force! Relevant, revealing and much appreciated. The belief in having ‘deleted’ emails, at CRU or anywhere else for that matter, sounds about as valid as the belief of the infant that covers its eyes and says: ‘Now you can’t see me Mummy!’
I heard a very closely related issue discussed on US National Public Radio (syndicated to us here in Oz via the Australian ABC News Radio service). The interviewee was Max Shrems who owns a website called Europe-vs-Facebook: http://europe-v-facebook.org/EN/Objectives/objectives.html
Whilst studying in the US, Max had made a legal request to Facebook for a copy of all the data that they retained from his Facebook account. He expected to recieve only the small amount of current information that he had not ‘deleted’, and was therefore shocked to recieve thousands of pages of data that, which he had supposeddly deleted, but which in his words had: ‘actually only been hidden from my own view’.
Back in Europe, he feels very strongly that this policy is conflict with the European legal concept of privacy, which he is therefore trying to get Facebook to comply with (at least at their European server, which is located in the Irish Republic).
Reading the foregoing however, I realise that he hasn’t got a cat-in-hell’s chance.
Facebook are unlikely to have set their systems up facilitate this, and very unlikely to voluntarily apply productive resources to do it the hard way.

A Public Servant

I normally lurk here rather than post, but in this instance feel the need to do so that some very valid parts article are not clouded by a misunderstanding of how the UK’s FOI environment operates. Under (current) FOI legislation and statutory guidance, UK public bodies are not required to search their IT systems and email servers for copies of an email that a user has deleted from their email client or other system. A public body can legitmately refuse any FOI request that asks them to do so. It is precisely why Phil Jones deserves the opprobrium being heaped upon him for deleting emails in his posession that were subject to FOI requests: he and David Palmer would have known full well that in FOI disclosure terms “they were gone for ever”. The Information Commissioner’s Office guidance is very specific on this matter. It is why the Information Commissioner took a such a dim view of the deletion and its inability to do anything about it. (The UK has no statute of limitations equivalent to the US so the time restriction on the IOC’s ability to act has to have been deliberately drafted by the civil servants who drafted the Act.) David Palmer followed the correct procedure when he asked Phil Jones to report back on the emails he held.
The truth is far more damaging than the possible conspiracy or failure to search IT systems to comply with an FOI request: there was deliberate connivance to delete a series of emails subject to an FOI request in the full knowledge that it would prohibit dislosure and would probably never have been discovered; and if it were, it would probably be too late for anyone to do anything about it.
Remember, were it not for “Climategate”, we would not know (for a fact) that Phil Jones had systematically deleted emails subject to FOI requests.

Excellent sleuthing, David. A thoroughly worthwhile read.
You say that latterly emails would have been encrypted on the server. I wonder if that is what is in the encrypted portion of the CG2.0 batch and FOIA wasn’t able to decrypt it himself but releases them anyway?
If that were the case, the CRU team would be able to use their own key to see what was in that batch. I wonder if they are poring over it as we write?

Duke C.

Nice work, David. Just wanted to add- the oldest email goes back to 1990, not 1996 (636048969 contained in the “all.7z ” archive).

Thanks David, a brilliantly clear post that all should be able to comprehend.

Michael Larkin

What a wonderful and educational article – thank you very much, David Hoffer! 🙂

Russell

While interesting, this overstates the availability of data *in readable form*. For most of the time period covered in the emails, one would need root privileges to read the emails, even if they were from a stolen tape (or any tape). The data is backed up and archived generally as described, but the security information is backed up with it, and the correct passwords etc are still required. It’s possible that the password security was shoddy and easily cracked, but it’s more likely that someone with the passwords liberated the data (which doesn’t mean they were supposed to have the passwords). It’s unlikely to be from collected from tapes either, simply because tapes have changed formats so many times over the years. (I am dutifully retaining tapes for the network I manage in accordance with the law and the retention policy, but I’ve no idea where I would find a drive to read most of them if it ever became necessary).
Good summary of why the data still exists!

Shevva

Sorry just about to read the post but might be worth cutting the front page post as it’s the full post [please delete]

John

Great article. I wanted to add a comment to Public Servant but first thanks I was wondering how UK law works. May that be why the CRU is where it is.
A Public Servant says:
November 30, 2011 at 2:30 am
I normally lurk here rather than post, but in this instance feel the need to do so…..
That said and I am sure many posters here know this or have figured this out while reading this is that many these emails were sent to sites in the US (much better FOIA laws).
Many of those addresses in the US are Univeristy’s, Publications, Private and Public entities, and US locals and like wise servers as described above like …llnr.gov which if I recall is Lawrance Livermore National Laboratory and so many more which I am certain can be accessed via the many backs-ups and redundances as described. Good luck and start hunting. By hunting I mean FOIA request to those entities and now…..

kim2ooo

Great Read! Thank you 🙂

SteveW

Just a thought, and one which I may well pursue.
Assuming the above to be correct (and I have no reason to asume otherwise) is it fair to assume that somewhere within CRU’s systems there should be copies of all the amails Phil Jones stated that he’d spent half a day deleting (can’t pull the precise reference out of the air, but I’m sure you know the mail I’m talking about).
Would their systems also have a record fo what and when was deleted by a specific user from their own personal folder?
If so, I feel a request for any emails deleted by Phil on the date of the aforementioned email or within 7 days thereof – could prove to be quite interestign reading.

Roger Knights

A Public Servant says:
November 30, 2011 at 2:30 am
… UK public bodies are not required to search their IT systems and email servers for copies of an email that a user has deleted from their email client or other system. A public body can legitmately refuse any FOI request that asks them to do so. It is precisely why Phil Jones deserves the opprobrium being heaped upon him for deleting emails in his posession that were subject to FOI requests: he and David Palmer would have known full well that in FOI disclosure terms “they were gone for ever”.

Ah-HA!

Shevva

Just a few points, the daily, weekly is generally more like daily (incremental), weekly (Friday night, full), Monthly (Full) and year end (full) generally the year end tape is kept until FOIA is up (7 years I think) and you have the monthly back ups for the year before. You can delete e-mails from your client but if your sitting in-front of your outlook now try Tools->Recover Deleted Items, now there not deleted anymore (depending on your system setup).
The troubling point as you say is that they span 20 years? For this there is no way that any IT department would keep the e-mails live on the system for that long so the only way to get 20 year old e-mails is the back up tapes, why the back up tapes because 20 years ago this was the only way to back up data (20 AS 400 tapes a night was a lot of tapes to take off site each night).
Educated guess, you restore all e-mails from the back up tapes 200,00 and then copy the data to a DVD, copy the tapes to second tapes and take the second tapes home with you or just simply walk off with the originals (although someone might notice this).

Slartibartfast

Comment section should be interesting today, given the fairly recent dustup between David Hoffer and another commenter whose name escapes me over who has the biggest…expertise in this area.

steveta_uk

There was recently an email outage at a company I’ve been doing some work for. It took a couple of days to restore the systems, then feed thru the pending stuff that was queued while the servers were out. I have IMAP access to their email servers.
On completion, every email I’d sent or received over the past 3 years was back in the folder structure visible via Thunderbird, so there was some hours of sorting to do to work out which ones I’d deliberately kept and which could be deleted.
I wasn’t aware until this happened that deleting emails, even using IMAP, doesn’t actually delete emails – just removes them from my ‘view’.

steveta_uk

Russel, given a tape of an email archive, there’s nothing to prevent someone dumping the tape content as a raw device and extracting the text, assuming the data isn’t encrypted.
Sure, if you restore the archive, then you restore the security, but the raw tape might just have all the emails in readable form. This could even explain why the email numbering in the FOIA releases is apparently random.

Very lovely article (and I say that as a professional). I’d add only a few things to it.
No history of people bitten by email “deletion” (not!) should exclude good old Oliver North in the Iran-Contra scandal. He tried to hide his covert activities by deleting all of his email relevant to it from his email client, to be sure (removing it from the primary email server his client connected to) as well as deleting any personal copies of messages and so forth that he had. He forgot about backups. Big oops. Quoting a nice little review here:
http://www.akdart.com/priv9.html
“Apparently there are many security-conscious individuals — even some who own paper shredders — who don’t know or don’t care about residual information from their deleted computer files. But there have been many public figures in recent history who have learned about this issue the hard way. That’s how U.S. Senate investigators got evidence on Col. Oliver North. E-mail messages that North believed to be deleted were found and used against him in litigation. A total of 758 e-mail messages were sent, involving him in the Iran-Contra affair, and every one of them was recovered.”
This was 1982, and was one of the first cases where this happened, and it is now an iconic event, the legal precedent that started the whole “responsible archiving” thing. Today, to be REALLY secure, you not only have to delete the file, you have to go in and do bad things to the physical disk platter to be certain of putting the data firmly beyond the reach of somebody who really wanted to get at it, say the NSA. Yeah, you can encrypt it instead, but a court can always compel the decryption key with the alternative of life in prison in contempt of court until you decide to comply. Data security is serious business that becomes more difficult and expensive as the stakes in the game go up, and just who “owns” data and what their rights/expectations are to data privacy are open questions with the probable answers of “anybody who can get at it by fair/legal means or foul” and “none”. Few people understand the means or are willing to pay the costs to really secure their data and information exchanges against less-than-NSA-level efforts to access it.
The second is an illustration of the power of discovery and its effect on e.g. University governance these days. Those of you who live in the US are likely aware of the infamous Duke Lacrosse Scandal. The story, in a nutshell, is that the members of the Duke lacrosse team had a party in a house just across the street from East Campus and hired three strippers as part of the entertainment (off campus, not Duke’s business, technically). One of the strippers was found in her car in a nearby parking lot completely wasted — drunk and drugged out of her mind (and obviously, driving at least to where she was found). In the hospital, when they asked her how she came to be in such a state she replied that she had been gang-raped by members of the Duke lacrosse team.
Instantly (in a way that is eerily reminiscent of the way CAGW caught on) she went from being a drunk, stoned, stripper being arrested to being a victim celebre — the investigating detective hated Duke and had a history of harassing undergrads and the DA was involved in a tough re-election battle. The “victim” (Crystal Gayle Magnum) was black, female, bravely working as a stripper (or so it was implied) to support her family and educational aspirations, the perpetrators were from a mostly white group that was “elite” even at Duke, an elite University.
It was almost surreal as my own wife and sister-in-law were openly believing all of the charges, where there’s smoke there’s fire, etc, and they are both physicians and not stupid. I myself counselled caution and wait and see — even from the beginning there were a lot of things in her story that didn’t add up, and the DA was obviously pursuing the case in a completely inappropriate way. In the meantime, a number of Duke faculty — now called “the gang of 88” — took out a full page ad in the local paper where they expressed shock and regret on behalf of Duke that any such thing could have been permitted to occur, effectively convicting the three young men who were eventually charged (picked out of a lineup that was one of the most biased and telegraphed lineups in history, with ONLY members of the lacrosse team in it so that no matter who she picked, she’d get a lacrosse player). Long story short, the case completely fell apart, the DA was fired and debarred, Ms. Magnum currently resides in prison (I imagine, for life) for allegedly knifing her last boyfriend. But that’s not the story.
The completely exonerated students, quite reasonably, started filing massive lawsuits right after their release. One of them was against Duke and all of the faculty in the gang of 88. One of those faculty was in the physics department (a good friend of mine, actually, and again very, very much not stupid, although he should probably have known better). Well before Duke got “served”, however, word came down from the administration that discovery was immanent and that our department IT staff (where I’m nominally a member as I actually built most of our first serious Unix client/server network , although at this point I hardly do anything any more) was to lock everything down, making copies of our archival backups and delivering them up for offsite and out-of-our-hands storage. I mean backups of everything — email, files on disk, the whole nine yards, going back over incrementals and snaps covering the entire time around the incident. Not just of the one person affected — of everybody. IIRC (I’m not certain of this) this request was made of pretty much the entire IT superstructure at Duke, which is not really particularly centralized. It was both expensive and universal, in other words, but the CYA principle dictated that it become IMPOSSIBLE for anyone in the Duke administration OR the gang of 88 OR (for that matter) anyone else on campus to delete any electronic document involving the lacrosse case.
I have no idea who is really “in charge” of the EAU-CRU, or whether UK discovery laws are similar to our own, but the CYA principle strongly suggests that they are fairly unlikely to permit tampering with their backup system, and indeed may have taken steps to ensure that they can comply with court-compelled discovery of all sorts, not just “FOI” requests. The case of data and methods stored on CRUs lovely beowulf-style compute cluster (visible in the picture above:-) is a bit hazier — research groups and units often are responsible for their own backup, and if you have (say) a few PB of data somewhere, backing it up outside of RAID (which isn’t really a backup, it is just protection against corruption and loss on disk failure) requires that you have ANOTHER PB (that’s “petabyte” — 1000 terabytes (TB)) server to do it on, and that starts getting very expensive.
Now I have no direct idea what sorts of data storage requirements the CRU has — it may well be in the TB range and be thoroughly backed up and snapshotted. However, it is common practice to back up AT LEAST the code! Who would ever risk losing their own code! That’s typically an investment of FTE years on the part of any researcher that publishes computed quantities. In addition to the code, I’d absolutely expect any modest dataset (that is, a set in the 1 to 1000 GB range, nowadays) to be thoroughly backed up, given that TB-scale disks are cheap and plentiful. Given this — and I think any expert who has helped manage scientific computing would agree with it and be willing to testify to that effect — the main question at the CRU is who is going to be covering who’s rear end, and what they’re willing to risk while doing so.
Jones et al or back in the US Mann and co (the researchers) might well want to cover THEIR OWN asses by deleting all sorts of things — email, data, code, whatever. Indeed, Jones could lose things without even meaning to out of sheer computer incompetence — not backing things up, overwriting them, not using a version control system with primary repository on a backed up system. On their own, sufficiently local servers they MIGHT be able to manage it, too!
Or rather, they could if they were me instead of being them — Jones in particular is such a computer klutz that he would be utterly incapable of going into a local mail/file server and deleting local copies, going into the archives and deleting selected parts of the archived copies, and so on, covering his tracks in the end (assuming that they are still “directly” accessible online on e.g. a tape library and that he has access to any offsite copies that might exist). It wouldn’t be easy even for me, even on a smallish system without offsite backups where I have direct root access, but at least I could take a stab at it.
If those servers are managed by third parties, however, it becomes almost impossible. Their IT staff have their OWN asses to cover, as do the toplevel administrators, who usually are risk averse. There is humiliation and loss of prestige and grant funding, and then there is humiliation and loss of prestige and grant funding accompanied by cash settlements and possible jail time! For them, not the researchers.
To summarize: Mann may well have had his own server(s) and done a lot of his own system management at UVA. In this case he — possibly with some help — may have actually been able to delete or hide all sorts of things that are being sought in the current FOI request. UVA almost certainly does not still have full archival copies of everything being requested, and is likely stonewalling and awaiting a court order BOTH because of a sincere desire to protect the privacy of its faculty (a laudable one, frankly!) AND because they may fear being caught out not having such an archival copy. As noted in the original article above, you can be damned either way, although the greatest damnation is reserved for those that do something like deliberately alter or delete records when they have been served or expect to be served with a discovery order of any sort, not just FOIA. Given the size of the CRU and its probable IT structure, I’d be very surprised if their records are not all carefully preserved, intact, offsite, and completely beyond the reach of any researcher without the aid and abettance of a serious system wizard. I’d be very surprised if any member of that staff would comply with an order by e.g. Jones to alter or delete part of that backup record — such a request would have to go through channels and would leave traces of its own and leave a whole bunch of people open to lawsuits and possibly jail time.

1DandyTroll

In EU we archive stuff for the purpose of fueling our deep seated perverted need to just keep stuff around because it feels safe. And that’s pretty much the only reason, because if you want to look at it you really need a damn good rational reason and usually a court order, even when you don’t need one, to do so. It’s a democratic dilemma in a newly open democratic society that has its roots in countries that has been run by socialists for the better part of the last hundred years. :p
I think you complicate things too much with the email issue.
1. Eudora was one of the more common clients in education, and for people over 60 they tend to change to new software when they’re dead.
2. No educational organization has implemented a proper utopian email system.
3. All systems suffer from fundamental flaws in the security design: They’re run by morons who want to constantly save time and money, which is why people end up having all sorts of access rights, because they’re performing all sorts administration duties, not the least because in educational institutions people come and people go, when they really shouldn’t.
4. Usually, in politicized controversial, leaks and hacks are not done by super villains from the opposition but by the very side who cries about having been hacked and sprung a leak. Sometimes knowingly so, if only to have the opposition running in circles wasting time, and if it works, hurray, but if it fails there’s always a couple of guys to feed to the wolfs, because sometimes they don’t really tell the upper echelon about their trek into the adventures of smoke and mirror’s lane.
5. Most people, it seems to me, in politicized controversies, who get caught from having hacked and leaked does so get caught because they’re, in fact, not super villains, but village idiots suffering a hubris level of naiveté, like using their own names asking for help to solve data problems, apparently, all the while thinking nobody will ever be the wiser. :-p

Great summary, Dave. Those emails still exist. They can never be completelt deleted, and they are damning evidence of the conniving climate alarmist clique that is perverting honest science for their own self-serving interest.
For Phil Jones, behind that silly, fatuous Jimmy Carter-type smile, there lies an evil, vindictive mind. Jones is completely anti-science, and self-serving at the expense of all honest, skeptical scientists [the only honest kind of scientists].
For the good of civilization Jones must be removed from his position; tried, convicted and imprisoned for misrepresenting science, and for deliberately conniving to destroy the carreers of honest scientists. Phil Jones is nothing but a criminal with a thin veneer of faux respectability.

Thanks for the lesson !!!
Very informative !!

Thanks for the education.

R Barker

Thanks David. Very informative. I wonder what gems might be revealed in the all.7z file(s).

Frank K.

Nice article – Thanks.
I hope this encourages everyone to remember to be professional and respectful in your e-mail correspondence at work (in particular), and even in your personal e-mail/g-mail/hotmail account. The internet remembers…

davidmhoffer

Dale;
The first snapshot is a full copy, but one’s after that are just the differences.>>>
That is mostly correct. However there are mlutiple snapshot architectures. “Split Mirror-Extent” makes a full copy and then records incremental changes after that. “Copy on Write” never makes a ful copy, just makes copies of the original portions of the data that would otherwise have changed in order to reasemble what any given point in time looked like. “Redirect on Write” never over writes data in the first place, it just copies the pointer tables at the given time and then reverts to those.
Then there are techniques such as journaling which also result in the ability to restore data to a specific point in time, and are sometimes used instead of (or as well as) snapshots.
Of course for this answer to be complete… I’d have to also describe vaulting 😉

Stephan

Well Lucia is now showing that the IPCC projections are now outside (below) the error bars LOL
http://rankexploits.com/musings/2011/la-nina-drives-hadcrut-nhsh-13-month-mean-outside-1sigma-model-spread/#comments
and that does not include November temps hahahah

davidmhoffer

A Public Servant;
Thanks for the clarifications! I knew that FOIA laws were implemented differently in the UK than in NA, your explanation clears up a lot of my own confusion as to why things were done a certain way.
If I read your explanation correctly, then in the UK one could actually avoid an FOIA request by deleting the email even though the institution itself would clearly still have them. How add. Sort of like a law that comes with a get out of jail free card attached to it!

Warren in Minnesota

Excellent article!
I will add that another minor problem with storage is similar to someone who now wants to play 8-track tapes. The hardware is no longer available or supported. Computer and storage technology as well as software constantly change making retrieval difficult when hardware and software are no longer available.

Dodgy Geezer

One minor point – law does require an evidence chain. In theory, I could delete all copies of a damning email from my PC and my email server, and then claim that copies found on systems belonging to someone else were forgeries which had been placed there to incriminate me. In justification, I would show that the corresponding files did not exist on my system…
In reality, if someone tried that I am pretty sure that the balance of probabilities would be firmly against me, and, in the UK at least, there is the ‘legal fiction’ that a computer is deemed to be operating properly unless evidence can be given to the contrary, so the remote servers might be deemed to be definitive.
But it would be an interesting argument to put up….

davidmhoffer

Shevva;
The troubling point as you say is that they span 20 years? For this there is no way that any IT department would keep the e-mails live on the system for that long so the only way to get 20 year old e-mails is the back up tapes, why the back up tapes because 20 years ago this was the only way to back up data >>>
As old email systems were replaced by new email systems it would have been a hassle (but just a hassle, not impossible) to ingest the old system’s email database into the new system’s email data base. Similarly, tape backup evolved over time. 20 years ago a tape cartridge could store a few megabytes. Now a single tape cartridge can store on the order of a terabyte. As backup systems evolved, ingesting data from old backup tape systems into the new ones was also a hassle, but certainly no where near impossible.
Building an archive would also be a way of addressing these issues. Most archive software can ingest email from most email systems…and export it back to most email systems. Once you have a good solid archive system in place, evoloving the email systems without actually losing access to older email becomed very easily managed.

RobB

Bearing in mind the long time frame of these emails it does sound most likely that it was the archive that was accessed. I would be interested to hear whether it would be possible to remotely access an email archive or storage facility or do you physically have to be there to get at it? In other words, can such facilities be hacked off-site? The answer might put to bed one of the more common arguments expressed in the blogosphere!

davidmhoffer

SteveW says:
November 30, 2011 at 4:16 am
Just a thought, and one which I may well pursue.
Assuming the above to be correct (and I have no reason to asume otherwise) is it fair to assume that somewhere within CRU’s systems there should be copies of all the amails Phil Jones stated that he’d spent half a day deleting>>>
Depends on exactly when in time he did the deleting, and exactly how the systems were implemented at that specific point in time.
SteveW
Would their systems also have a record fo what and when was deleted by a specific user from their own personal folder?>>>
Is it possible? Yes. Is it likely? Yes. Do we know for certain that the specific implementation of the email system during the specific time period in question retained that information? No. What is most likely? Most likely yes.
SteveW
If so, I feel a request for any emails deleted by Phil on the date of the aforementioned email or within 7 days thereof – could prove to be quite interestign reading.>>>
I’d check out the comment from A Public Servant above. In the jurisdictions I’m familiar with, you could do that. From the looks of A Public Servant’s comments, this may not be so in the UK.

“The troubling point as you say is that they span 20 years? For this there is no way that any IT department would keep the e-mails live on the system for that long…”
Not true. I know lots of people who have mail spools that go back at least that far, for at least selected messages. My own would, except that I get so damn much spam that it grows to where I have to make my own archival copy of my own mail spool and then reset the whole thing back to “zero messages” (I have almost 20,000 messages in my current mail spool). The oldest mail message that I have in my own regular email archives is from 1993, although there is nothing special about that. I probably do have messages archived that go back to bitnet days in my research directory space.
The question is whether or not storage for mail spools grew faster than people’s mail spool files. For an “IT rich group” with its own server(s) and mail spool and plenty of money for big disks, individuals may literally never have been asked to delete email to make room, or may have selectively deleted away crap and retained communications from their closest colleagues, especially (in the latter case) if they thought the discussions were important. For example, one of the 1994 archives I have references the steps taken to catch out a postdoc who was engaged in IP theft of code and data from a major (but poorly secured) project in a department at Duke. Since I did the actual work of running him to ground (doing the kind of thing described elsewhere, correlating the logs of several systems at once to validate the assertion that it was really him and not somebody who had his password) and since there were all sorts of liability and legal issues involved, I kept all the records of the correspondence.
This latter case is still apropos today. Absolutely anybody could have stolen the CRU archives. By absolutely anybody, I mean that I (who have never been anywhere near East Anglia) could, under certain circumstances, have done it. So could Joe Cracker from the middle of Iowa, or a paid hacker employed by the near-mythical Oil Cartel that somehow fails to send me money for being publicly skeptical. All it takes is either mad skills and a certain amount of luck (both needed to crack a competently managed site) where the skill/luck combination steadily decrease with the competence of the CRU IT staff and/or their reliance on notoriously insecure server software and technology (such as various incarnations of WinXX and Outlook, but Unixoid servers can be just as badly run and insecure).
Note well that there is no real reason to think that the perpetrator (if any) physically resided inside the building at the time. A scenario like:
a) CRU IT staff person X often works from home. His teen age son uses the same WinXP computer to play games. The son downloads a WoW hack that contains a trojan and a sniffer/keystroke logger. The IT person logs in to CRU’s main servers to make sure the overnights are going well or finish a chore he started during the day (all IT people get their best work done at night anyway) unaware that his keystrokes are being logged.
b) Joe Cracker (who built the trojan and receives the output after umpty breakouts designed to protect him) gets the logs — and there are a LOT of logs. He runs them through a filter to pull out things like probable password entry sequences and and is scanning through the addresses and notices that he’s hit the jackpot! Hot damn, entry into the CRU. Not only that, but as an IT staff person — he now has the ROOT password on the SERVERS.
c) Joe himself, or one of Joe’s friend, or somebody Joe approaches to sell off his discovery to, takes said password, goes in, and — doing what crackers do — looks around a bit. Maybe he’s curious about AGW and starts reading the mail spools of these “famous” AGW people. Lo, he discovers that they aren’t heroes, they are a**holes! He’s almost by definition an anarchist rebel who sees himself romantically. For whatever reason, he sets up a script that will take a snapshot of the entire /var/spool/mail directory for starters, then looks around in e.g. home directory space and elsewhere and grabs other stuff as well. CRU must have very high bandwidth (big datasets flying across the atlantic to colleagues both ways) and of course Joe has the highest bandwidth he can afford — if he’s at a University himself very high indeed, but even at home probably a premium service. Minutes to hours later, he has everything that has appeared in CG1 and CG2, and maybe more! Why limit what you steal while you have the opportunity! Take it all, sort it out later!
Some time later — perhaps even the next MORNING — the intrusion is noticed, passwords are changed, and so on. Barn door locked, horse gone. Perhaps Joe installed a backdoor, perhaps not. The point is that there are plenty of perfectly reasonable scenarios (where I know as historical fact not one but SEVERAL cases where almost precisely this has happened in the past, and it is one of my own personal nightmares and one reason I never use my sons’ systems at home to do work or let them use my personal system at home for much of anything at all) whereby perfect strangers could have cracked CRU and taken whatever they wanted.
As noted in the article above, the barrier goes down the closer you are to the server, the more you are inside its security barriers (e.g. firewalls, VPNs). Hence postdocs on site, disgruntled faculty, the janitor, IT staff gone bad… But this isn’t a national security site — it is a bloody university research department doing non-classified research, so it is virtually certain that people have e.g. ssh access or vpn access or even rdesktop access from outside of the firewall, and anyone with the right credentials then can waltz right in. There are so many ways those credentials could have been obtained by a third party that a third party cracker is right up there with the main chances of an inside job.
rgb

Someone care to ‘splain the scenario where the central ‘server’ (in the closet!) complains that I have “exceeded my mail quota” and I need to free up some space by ‘moving’ the e-mails to a private folder (ostensibly on my local PC it appeared)?
Mail client was MS Outlook running under Xp.
Small Windows shop (not *NIX) BTW (and I was just a ‘user’ not the admin). Time frame 2006 – 2007.
Q’s:
1) Were the e-mails moved _off_ the server in this case?
2) Would copies have existed anywhere accessible by the server?
.

davidmhoffer

Russell says:
November 30, 2011 at 4:09 am
While interesting, this overstates the availability of data *in readable form*. For most of the time period covered in the emails, one would need root privileges to read the emails, even if they were from a stolen tape (or any tape). >>>
In the case of email systems it has been common practice to ingest email from old systems into new systems and then backup the entire new system (including the old email) in order to preserve everything in a readable format. Only encryption would defeat this from a backup tape perspective. The fact that the unencrypted emails end in 2009, and encrypting tape backups began getting popular right about then may be a “root cause”…. or just a coincidence.

davidmhoffer

Robert Brown;
Today, to be REALLY secure, you not only have to delete the file, you have to go in and do bad things to the physical disk platter to be certain of putting the data firmly beyond the reach of somebody who really wanted to get at it, say the NSA.>>>
I used to have a lot of military customers, though its been a while. When they wanted to “retire” and old hard drive, they had a machine with a hopper on top that you dropped the hard drive into. There would be a nasty grinding sound, and metal filings would emerge at the bottom.
Pretty effective, but your point is valid. Provided that you have the right equipment, it is sometimes possible to recover data from a drive that has been overwritten several times.

Alex

If today’s price of 1G storage is, let’s say, one dollar, and it will cost half dollar next year and so on and so forth, the cost of storing the same volume of data is halved every year. If the volume of stored data is doubling every year, then there would not be much scope of really deleting old data to make space for the storage of new data, especially considering the risks due to FOIA. Hence, i would say that there should be no real scope of deleting old FOIA-iable emails and other data. The best and safest thing to do is just keep on buying memory. It all depends on the economics of the thing really.

A Public Servant

John says:
November 30, 2011 at 4:13 am
I totally agree. Reading through the emails, my belief is Phil Jones was ignorant of FOI, then rapidly appraised about UK FOI law and then decided to urge colleagues to delete their emails without realising that most would already have their own FOI concerns and would have been well aware that deletion of emails from their client was not sufficient. Otherwise, the emails from Phil Jones make little sense to me. (I am at work – otherwise I would search and quote directly.) I could easily be wrong of course, but I have seen not dissimilar responses at work…
Sorry to Anthony and the mods if I have broken convention when referring back to earlier posts.

Louis Hooffstetter

Suggestion:
Although I’m not a Brit, I would gladly contribute to a ‘tip jar’ to hire lawyers to sue the CRU on behalf of the British taxpayers. They should be sued not only for failure to comply with British FOI laws, but they should be held liable for massive punitive damages as well. Maybe British citizens could recover some of their money that was wasted on this tribe of fraudsters. If such a ‘tip jar’ or fund is ever set up, please let everyone at WUWT know about it.

Fascinating article on the basic way an email exchange works, and how it is damn near impossible to delete something once it is sent out on the web.

Slartibartfast

I used to have a lot of military customers, though its been a while. When they wanted to “retire” and old hard drive, they had a machine with a hopper on top that you dropped the hard drive into. There would be a nasty grinding sound, and metal filings would emerge at the bottom.

Interesting approach. My own non-DOD-approved technique is to remove the hard drive platters and bend them into interesting shapes. In theory you might be able to recover some fragments of data, but it’s unlikely you’d be able to do anything with them.
My comment about about the thread in which you, davidmhoffer, got into it with another commenter, should have linked to here. It’d be interesting to continue the parts of that discussion that actually apply to the problem at hand, here in this thread. Because I don’t think either of you admitted they were wrong, there.
Which is not to say that I have any idea which of you actually is wrong.

A Public Servant

davidmhoffer says:
November 30, 2011 at 6:01 am
That is exactly right. UK FOI law is a mixture of the onerous and the very lax e.g. having poor or non-existent records management policies may not be a breach of the Act, but if an organisation cannot address legitimate requests because of that fault, it may be a breach(!) This kind of oddity also extends to physical documents: if a public body’s records management / document retention policy states a document should have been deleted, there is generally no need to look for it when asked for under FOI.
The exemption relating to international relations cited by UEA would have been interesting to see challenged at an Information Tribunal or in the High Court, particularly as it would be subject to a public interest test…

Just a technical note on IMAP servers and their interactions with email clients; “clients” being the application programs that are used to access emails on the server.
When the email client, e.g. Eudora, Thunderbird, Outlook, … deletes a message, it flags it for deletion on the IMAP server. (There are technical and human-interface reasons for that.). When the user wants to recover space in their mail area, they send a “compress” command to the IMAP server for that mail folder, which causes actual deletion. If the user set their mail client options to show deleted items, then they’d be listed; usually with strike-through.
Unfortunately, as users haven’t been educated and never actually compressed their mail folders, the delete from the client is more recently accompanied by a compress; reducing operational efficiency and the ability to recover from OOPS moments.
It still doesn’t fix the problem of the Trash folders with 123,456 deleted items.

Joe

As a professional Back and Storage administrator I fully endorse this article.

AJC

If you want something less generic and more specific to CRU and their e-mail system(s) then I commend Lance Levsen’s original analysis (December, 2009) …
Climate-Gate: Leaked
http://www.smalldeadanimals.com/FOIA_Leaked/
also a quick look at Peter Sommer’s pathetic UEA – CRU Review ….
Initial Report and commentary on email examination
http://www.cce-review.org/evidence/Report%20on%20email%20extraction.pdf
informs us that the three memory sticks he received for analysis from the backup server were in the alien (to him) format called “Thunderbird”. I surmise that these three sets were personal collections produced by the three individuals. The ClimateGate 1.0 archive was just that – an archive – presumably for the whole CRU or more likely a select sub-group.

Olen

AaHH for the days of a paper shredder and burn site.
A great post and superb comments.

Stuck-Record

David
Thank you for your genuinely enlightening essay.
I have a question. Do you think that the authorities (UEA and Norfolk Police) know who did this and how?

As with most universities the UEA IT department is a bureaucratic nightmare,
http://www.uea.ac.uk/is/contacts
http://www.uea.ac.uk/is/contacts/isdstaffingstructure
Admin access to the email servers is likely shared with the network and IT support staff, which looks like a lot of people. Just as I suspected they do not have anyone dedicated to email. I would be very surprised if they had redundant data centers (redundant servers in the same data center possibly) and had more than one form of backup for their email servers.
(performance degrades sharply with distance)
That depends on the type of network connection between the servers.
The last email release ends in 2009, and the rest of the release is, in fact, encrypted. One can only wonder, does the CRU encrypt their backup tapes, and if so, when did they start doing that?
The hacker encrypted the rest of the emails using 7-Zip and AES 256-bit encryption. I am almost positive it was a hacker and not internal IT staff or something else as they hacked into the RealClimate website with the original Climategate release.

eyesonu

Thank you David for a very informative post.
Thank you WUWT for the knowledge offered on this site.