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This is the time of the year when many of us seem to accumulate a lot more “stuff” to add to our collections. Holiday gifts that we may or may not really want, end of year sales that we just can’t resist, those little “pick me up” presents to ourselves to counter the winter doldrums, whatever the reason, it’s likely that come spring cleaning time, you’ll find yourself with closets and shelves that are more crowded than they were a few months ago.

Some self-disciplined folks have no problem keeping their lives clutter free. Those lucky souls are the ones who can ruthlessly root out all the unnecessary possessions that are taking up too much space and consign them to the trash bin or the Salvation Army sack without even a twinge of remorse. For others, it’s not quite as easy.

I’m one of those people who’s not comfortable unless my surrounding are nice and organized. I like a place for everything and everything in its place. But it’s hard to reconcile that compulsion with another I have: to never throw away anything that might still have value or be useful to me or someone else in the future. Thus my closets, drawers, garage and attic are overflowing with nicely organized things that I’ll probably never use again.

I admit it: I’m something of a packrat – although not as bad as some people I’ve known, who save things that couldn’t possibly ever be of use to them again. For example, when my mom passed away and I had to go through all her belongings in preparation for selling the house, I found boxes and boxes of old receipts that had long outlived their tax or other recordkeeping purposes (I’m talking about things like grocery store receipts and utility bill stubs from thirty years before). Hmmm … maybe you’re beginning to see where my own packrat tendencies came from.

In this electronic age, those of us who like to keep things have the perfect venue: our computers. We can collect digital photos or songs or other files in the same way we collect coins or stamps or guns or dolls in the “real world.” And with hard disk space getting cheaper all the time (a Maxtor 500 GB SATA drive can be had for $149 – that’s about 29 cents per gig), it’s tempting to keep everything. And with digital data, you can keep several copies of everything. Just to be on the safe side.

Consequently, we electronic packrats find our gargantuan disks filling up quickly, with music, video, pictures, documents, archived email and so forth. It’s fun to amaze my friends by going back and reproducing a message I received ten years ago. But what if you were required by the government to keep copies of all your electronic data? That’s exactly the situation that businesses – and maybe even individuals – are likely to eventually find themselves in.

Data retention laws are gaining ground fast. At the beginning of this month, new federal rules went into effect that prohibit companies from deleting data that could be relevant in a lawsuit. In other words, deleting the wrong file could subject individuals and businesses to the same penalties as shredding paper documents that might be later asked for by the court. The good news is that this law contains a “safe harbor” provision that says that absent exceptional circumstances, a court can’t impose sanctions on a party for failing to provide electronically stored information that was lost as a result of routine, good-faith operation.” Many breathed a sigh of relief at that. The “gotcha” is that the law requires you to retain data not just after a lawsuit is filed, but if litigation is “reasonably anticipated.” You can read more about the new rules here.

Of course, ISPs are already required to retain a good deal of information. And the European Union is way ahead of us when it comes to data retention; their parliament approved a requirement a year ago requiring ISPs, phone companies and VoIP providers to maintain information about all electronic messages sent and phone calls made, for up to two years.

Keeping electronic information around forever is a two-edged sword. Certainly we’ve all encountered frustration when dealing with some business that claimed to no longer have our records, but having all that data out there – especially personal and financial data – also puts us all at risk that it will eventually be accessed by the wrong person. Privacy of any kind is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Of course, there are a lot of persuasive arguments in favor of data retention requirements. It will help us detect and prosecute terrorists, it will help us protect consumers, we need to do it “for the children” to catch pedophiles. And masses of information that contain everyones’ email messages, phone calls, credit card purchase record, travel history, etc. will indeed help with all those pursuits. But at what price to society and individual liberties? That’s what remains to be seen.

What do you think? Are you an electronic packrat? If so, has long term saving of data saved your skin on at least one occasion?

Or does all that info just sit there taking up space?

Should the government be allowed to be an electronic packrat too, creating huge databases that detail every aspect of our lives? Are the benefits worth the risks?

Should private businesses be required to keep data such as all its employees’ emails and records of their phone calls, even when no litigation proceedings have been initiated? 

Deb Shinder, MVP

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