Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What If the Cloud Ate My Email?

I’ve read a couple of documents lately that have really got me thinking hard about how I use email and how it is (or isn’t) preserved. The first was a fascinating article in the Atlantic about the possible results of having one’s Gmail account hacked, including potentially losing all of your email. This was also a nice reminder to use secure passwords and not to use the same password for multiple online services, and if you’re interested in such matters I highly recommend reading it. The second document was the recently published Preserving Email technology watch report written by Chris Prom for the Digital Preservation Coalition.

These documents were particularly timely, since we here at Dartmouth are transitioning to Microsoft Online Services, a cloud-based email system. And many of us, both at Dartmouth and elsewhere, have used and continue to use Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, or other cloud services for personal email. There’s nothing inherently wrong with cloud-based email, and in fact it is incredibly convenient for most users. I know I love having access to my email from any location on any device. But there is a catch, which was highlighted in the Atlantic article: your email can be lost from these systems, just as it can be lost from locally-stored clients if they aren’t backed up properly. Whether due to hacking, technical glitches, or even simple user error, there are myriad ways in which emails can disappear from your grasp.

What can we do about this? Well, I’m not saying we shouldn’t trust our providers. On campus, for example, I know that Computing Services is working closely with Microsoft to ensure that emails stored within our campus environment are safe and can be recovered if needed. However, I can’t personally speak for what Google, Yahoo, Hotmail, and other online service providers are doing to ensure continued access to email, and again, the Atlantic article shows that email can be lost despite those companies’ best efforts to prevent it. Plus, it’s just good practice and common sense to put a little extra effort into backing up all your digital files, email included!

If you're curious about how you can preserve your personal emails, the Library of Congress has an excellent page of tips for doing just that. As with all digital preservation activities, the first step is to identify and organize the email you have, to make sure you know what it is you’re trying to preserve. Then you’ll want to export the email. There are several ways to do this and the exact procedure varies depending on your email service.

One method is to download all your cloud-stored email to a local client on your computer, using POP. This way you’ll have both the copy in the cloud, the copy on your computer, and if your computer is backed up (which of course it should be!) another copy on your backup device. Note that you'll probably want to leave the downloaded messages on the server so you can still access them from within your cloud-based client. Also note that any changes made in the mail client on your computer won’t affect what's in the cloud, so this method is really for archival purposes only. Here are instructions for doing this in Gmail.

One interesting conundrum is how to deal with attachments, which can be tricky because they can be any type of file, and usually require some external program (such as Word or Excel) to open. The best advice at the moment, according to both the Library of Congress tips and the Preserving Email report, is to download, save, and manage attachments separately.

Once you have all your email on your computer, you’ll want to organize it and write up a brief description (aka add some preservation metadata) to remind yourself of what all these emails are and how you’ve organized them. Then, of course, you’ll want to make sure your email is backed up sufficiently in case something happens to your computer.

It’s not a perfect system, but these are at least some good first steps to preserving your personal email and making sure all that valuable communication isn’t lost forever!

Written by Helen Bailey.

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