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Is online email ever really deleted permanently?


Does an email really get deleted? Whether you pull an email off of a server
or log on to a service provider, don’t they backup their servers daily or
hourly and wouldn’t that email still exist on the backup servers forever?

In this excerpt from
Answercast #85
, I look at the possibilities that server companies are making
backups that store and keep old emails.


Online email permanently deleted

Well, you raise a very, very interesting point.

The short answer to your question is, “You’re absolutely right!” The longer answer to your question is, “We absolutely don’t know.”

Most email service providers (and this runs the gamut from Gmail to Hotmail, to your ISP to whatever email service you happen to be using) don’t publicize this kind of information:

  • They don’t tell you how often they do backups.

  • They don’t tell you what’s included in those backups.

  • They don’t tell you how long those backups are kept;

  • And they don’t tell you how often they expunge old backups from their system.

So, we don’t know. We quite literally do not know for any given email service provider what the answer is – and whether it’s the same answer for a different provider.

Assume the emails are kept

In order to be safe – if it matters at all? Yes. You have to assume that the mail servers are being backed up constantly. You have to assume that the backups are being kept forever.

Now, given that the backups might exist. Does that mean that you can arbitrarily ask the ISP to go retrieve something you deleted a few months ago?

Absolutely, not!

Most ISPs will explicitly tell you, “No, there’s no way that they will use their backups, wherever they might be, to restore something that you deleted.”

The backups they keep are for their own purposes. If they have a problem with their email hardware, they have the ability to restore from a backup – and they aren’t the ones who lost your email. If you lose it, that’s on you… which is why I strongly and frequently recommend backing up your email one way or another.

Possible legal access

But the backups still exist at the ISP; that’s an assumption you have to make.

The reason that assumption is important is not because it’s useful to you in any way – but rather it might be useful to law enforcement or court cases.

In other words, if you were to get sued or if you were to be accused of some illegal activity, it is possible that your email service provider might be compelled to retrieve email, that you’ve deleted from your online service, from their backups.

The only way that they’re going to do that, of course, is:

  1. If they have those backups (and we’re going to assume that they do.)

  2. And if it is in response to some kind of legal authority that is going to force them (or like I said, compel them) to retrieve that information because it’s not an inexpensive request.

So it’s yes and no

That’s the way I would look at it from a practical point of view.

You and I kind-of, sort-of need to assume that nothing is backed up and take responsibility for backing up our own email.

But, if you’re concerned that what is in your email could be discovered at some point as part of some legal proceeding, then you need to assume the very opposite; you need to assume the backups are there; they are there forever and opposing counsel could in fact request it.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

Next from Answercast 85 – Is CCleaner deleting System Restore points?

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3 comments on “Is online email ever really deleted permanently?”

  1. Even when a problem occurs that is demonstrably their fault, and your mail gets deleted, they won’t restore it. I had three years of old inbox webmails (2005 thru 2007) turn into drafts–email others had sent me had somehow turned into drafts. There is no way I could possibly do that myself even if I wanted to. I cannot take a received message that is parked on their server and turn it into a draft and have the option of continuing to compose it or of modifying it in any way at all, at least while it is on their server, although I suppose that a hacker might. Yet, in their support response on Microsoft Answers, they wanted to know what I had done (and when) that led to the problem. I only go back that far maybe once or twice a year, so I had no idea when the problem occurred. Then, after manifesting themselves as drafts for a while, all these old emails disappeared. One of the private responses I got from them was “I checked your account and found some minor issues which I’ve fixed at the backend. Could you please confirm if the issue persists?” Well, I guess the issue of them being turned into drafts doesn’t exist, since the email is all gone. Thanks, Microsoft.

  2. E-mail is “there” FOREVER. The Gov’t Agency that doesn’t exist examines (with the help of my best friend) e-mails, because even goober me, can hide “stuff” inside an e-mail (I don’t know DOS, HTML or anything, but the USAF taught me “things”). The VERY old “key book code” (see Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes”) is tailor-made for e-mails.
    Tommi Ota (the best spy the Japanese had in Hawaii on Pearl Harbor before the attack) sent so many letters, phone calls and telegrams, the FBI eventually ignored him, until AFTER the attack, when the Naval cryptographers studied his messages. Too much data…find the needle…in the needle factory!

  3. What about space? How much space would it take to store all 90 trillion e-mail messages per year? I understand that 90 percent or so are spam messages, but I look at the amount of e-mail I accumulate here at work in one year and it is about one gig of saved message each year. Not the full amount of messages I receive or send, but keep. How much money will an ISP put into storing, archiving, and accessing for EVERY e-mail message? I would think that it would get expensive eventually. Storage is pretty cheap, but if you are dealing with large volumes of data, even pretty cheap gets expensive. So is there any way we could figure out how much space it would take to store all of the messages sent each year? If we could come up with that number then we could understand how much effort and money it would take to keep them “forever”. If we decide that all ISP automatically delete spam messages, then I would guess that it would not be too difficult for a group of people wishing to communicate via e-mail to disguise all of their e-mails as spam so that they would be deleted by the ISP. So either every ISP keeps all of the e-mails messages, or deletes, the “spam” messages, or only archives for a limited time. I can only guess that the cost for keeping all e-mails indefinitely would be cost prohibitive, since there is no good business reason (at least none that I can think of) to keep e-mails from 20 years ago. What do you think? Almost all things in life (at least in business) comes down to money.


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