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Some want internet records kept forever, others not at all. What can you count on?

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This is Leo Notenboom for askleo.info.

A very common concern I hear deals with record keeping. No, not your own, but rather the records that might be kept by the various service providers that we use every day on the internet.

And I head it from both sides.

One group of folks are trying to recover or track something, and they're hoping that their mail provider, IM provider, or ISP will have kept all the logs or messages that they're looking for. Forever, it seems, since I've had people request the ability to recover email from their free email provider for as far back as six years.

Then there are the other folks. The ones who apparently have something to hide. They want to know if their emails, access logs, or IM conversations have been kept, and if so for how long they'll be kept. A very common question is how to ensure that they're not kept, or how to somehow expunge any that have been kept.

Fortunately the answer to both is quite simple.

Unfortunately the answer to both is quite frustrating.

I don't know.

In fact, it's unlikely that anyone outside of the specific providers would know, and they aren't telling. And whatever their answer might be, it's almost certainly different for every ISP, every email provider, and every IM service that might exist and in fact might well be different this week than it was last week.

The service provider's problem is two fold: keeping track of historical data like that gets extremely expensive the longer and more completely you keep it. And going public about their policies simply invites a flood of requests that must somehow be dealt with.

From a practical standpoint all this boils down to a very simple and pragmatic position for the average user: assume the worst.

It's safer that way.

If you're trying to hide something, assume that everything is kept forever and can be retrieved with a court order. Use techniques such as encryption to make sure that your communications, once retrieved, can't be deciphered.

If you rely on some service and you'd ever think of trying to recover or track something using them, assume you can't. Instead put into place backup and other mechanisms of your own that you control.

And therein lies the bottom line: take responsibility for what you can, be it something like encrypting your sensitive communications, or something else like making sure that your Windows Live Hotmail isn't the only place you keep your address book.

Your service provider is not likely to be a safety net in any reasonable way.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit askleo.info and enter 12068 in the go to article number box to access the show notes, the transcript and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse the hundreds of technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for askleo.info.

Article C3232 - December 9, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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2 Comments
Greg W
December 17, 2007 11:44 AM

Try using Gmail by Google. You can keep Email 4-ever or delete what you want. It has a seprate spam folder & you don't need to look at that.

damien auksorius
May 18, 2012 7:18 PM

i have talked to a lot of people about this and they feel it is around ten years. old information gets wiped away following newer information being added.

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