Digital information, commonly referred to as Electronically Stored Information or ESI, has experienced exponential growth in recent years and has become a critical source of evidence in legal actions across the world. And this growth is set only to accelerate, with a recent study by IDC revealing that by the end of 2010 the amount of ESI will have grown to 1.2 million petabytes.
ESI has gained popularity because it takes up less space than physical documentation and offers advanced capability designed to speed up the search process. But with the massive growth expected in the amounts of this information, is this search capability enough for the legal sector or has finding evidence become akin to finding a mythical needle in a haystack?
Electronic search capability has been thought of as a boon to the legal industry, where in the past investigators would have had to search through thousands of paper-based documents to assemble evidence. In theory ESI allows investigators to search through these thousands of records electronically using intelligent search terms, which would speed up the search process to just a matter of minutes. In practice however, this virtual mountain of information is made difficult by sheer data volumes and compounded by poor data management.
The reality is that today ESI plays a pivotal role in legal matters, and the success and cost of legal processes requiring this data depends heavily on being able to rapidly retrieve accurate information. If data is badly managed it takes longer to retrieve, if it can be found at all, which risks bringing the entire legal process to a halt.
The growth of data is a growing problem in the E-Discovery process as the amount of data that needs to be searched per legal matter is ever increasing. Problems related to E-Discovery on ESI can cause cases to be lost or delayed or to result in sanctions, and many of these problems occur as a result of poor availability of relevant data from electronic sources. And the need for compliance can sometimes lead to over-sensitive data retention policies, which exacerbates the information overload situation even further, furthering hampering the legal process.
Having said that however, ESI can be a source of vast amounts of potential evidence, and advances in E-Discovery have contributed to the rise of digital evidence as a contribution to a large number of legal successes. ESI can be used to demonstrate the financial wellbeing of an organisation as well as address queries relating to financial transactions, due diligence and compliance checks. Other applications of ESI recovered using E-Discovery include employee behaviour checks, human resources investigations and other internal processes.
ESI and digital evidence have a variety of applications in the business and legal worlds, however as discussed the volume of this can make E-Discovery a difficult process, especially if data is not well managed. This problem is complicated by the vast variety of media in which digital evidence may be found, from emails to digital photographs, word processing documents, spreadsheets and databases to instant messaging history, internet browser history, digital audio files and social media. Many of these sources of information are not habitually located within corporate archives, adding even more time onto the search process as individual machines need to be examined along with corporate archives.
Digital evidence located within ESI offers both opportunities and challenges within the legal field, but unchecked growth of ESI can cause digital information overload which not even the most sophisticated E-Discovery tools can overcome, especially when it comes to unstructured data such as instant messages and email.
To make the most of ESI, organisations need to re-evaluate the storage and searching of data. This involves firstly taking a more strategic view of information management, reducing duplication of data, using backup appropriately to meet the needs of the organisation from a legal and compliance perspective and deleting information that is no longer needed. Secondly the E-Discovery process needs to extend beyond central archiving to include location, recovery and preservation of ESI from individual end-point devices.
Technology is a great enabler in situations like this, with tools available currently that offer enhanced E-Discovery solutions that address these issues. Technology that offers expanded content collection capability for both structured and unstructured data enables better information collection, and the ability to de-duplicate data reduces the volumes of data which speeds up search processes.
The explosion of digital information is a reality, as is compliance and organisations need to be able to efficiently store, search and access data, both structured and unstructured, as a legal dispute may occur without warning. Successful E-Discovery eases the legal process by delivering the right information in the right format as quickly as possible, an area where the application of appropriate technology can make all of the difference.
The successful business is the prepared business, and good business sense dictates that organisations should be prepared with all of the necessary information should litigation occur. Speeding up this process using technology as an enabler can not only help the business’ chances of successfully navigating legal action, but can also dramatically reduce the price tag of these often costly procedures.