Nothing on the Internet is ever, ever deleted

Just another example of this today: I finally got a signup link for the beta of Office 365. I signed up and connected an e-mail account I have at a hosting provider. The hosting provider uses SmarterMail 7 Enterprise Edition.

Apparently, all I had to do was input my e-mail address and my e-mail password. From there on, Office 365 figured out all the rest for me. A few minutes later, all e-mails in that mailbox (what I thought was 30 days worth of history) were downloaded to my Office 365 Exchange Online inbox. Great. Painless.

Then I decided to test the search functionality in Outlook Online to see how it compares to Outlook 2010. I typed in my wife’s name, and lo and behold, I get several dozen messages as a search result. Now that’s strange, because my wife and I don’t use that e-mail account to communicate (it’s an old business e-mail account). So I looked more closely at the e-mail and some messages dated back to November 2006, over four years ago.

I logged in to the hosting provider’s web mail interface to double-check, but there, my mailbox showed only messages from the past 30 days. Deleted Items folder showed some spam mail that was placed there automatically by spam filters. Where does the 4 year old e-mail come from? Why does it not show up in the Inbox until I perform a keyword search?

The best I can figure is that because at one time, I configured IMAP in Outlook for that account, all the “deleted” messages are never actually “purged” (purge and delete are two different things in IMAP). Because I never actually purged the deleted messages in the account, they are just kept. They are marked as deleted, which is why they don’t show in the Inbox. (My guess is that it’s a bug they’re showing in search results.)

Bad news for the hosting provider, because they’ve kept I-don’t-know-how-many years of e-mail messages, and they’re not billing me for storage. However, from an e-discovery standpoint, what are the implications for an organization? “No, your honor, we don’t keep messages older than 2 years.” Two months later: “Oops, apparently our e-mail provider kept that important e-mail anyway.” I wouldn’t want to explain that to a federal judge.

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