Pull the Other One, Pinky

Enterprise Email 101: Understanding The IRS Email Loss

Familiarize yourself with Hanlon’s razor first …

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

… and then give it a read.

As it happens, I used to administer just the sort of e-mail systems that the IRS seems to be using. So I fired off a set of queries to the IRS about its e-mail system, its archiving policies and how the loss of data happened. Many of those queries remain unanswered, but I was given some documents that explain how the files could have been lost. My conclusion: It is plausible that this was an innocent coincidence. But it is only plausible if the IRS is managing its IT systems so badly that it is very easy to lose critical records — or for abusive employees to destroy the evidence of their misbehavior.

Her piece tracks with an email I wrote to Ace and the cobloggers shortly after the story about Lerner’s emails first came to light.

The “innocent coincidence” becomes considerably less plausible when it also happens to six other IRS employees involved in the scandal.


About Bill Quick

I am a small-l libertarian. My primary concern is to increase individual liberty as much as possible in the face of statist efforts to restrict it from both the right and the left. If I had to sum up my beliefs as concisely as possible, I would say, "Stay out of my wallet and my bedroom," "your liberty stops at my nose," and "don't tread on me." I will believe that things are taking a turn for the better in America when married gays are able to, and do, maintain large arsenals of automatic weapons, and tax collectors are, and do, not.


Pull the Other One, Pinky — 11 Comments

  1. Everyone involved with the care and destruction of those computer hard drives should go to jail.

    How could the email server lose those emails? The answer, chosen ignorantly, was that Lerner’s personal computer had the only remaining copies, and it malfunctioned. I would like to know what portion of the IRS operates under those ridiculous conditions.

    Then, it became necessary to claim that this happened to SIX personal computers. Their local hard drives are independent.

    The standard for criminal conviction is commission of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

    Consider the accidental damage of a hard-drive through a computer glitch so as to make the data completely unrecoverable. Say the probability of this is 1 in 50 years. Multiply together the probabilities that this happens in the same year for six IRS employees and administrators. The probability of that is 1 in 50^6 years, or about once in 15 billion years.

    The data disappeared. I say that one chance in 15 billion years of this being an accident is beyond a reasonable doubt. Jail them all.

    • A lot of government agencies do have restrictive email retention policies. (I’m personally familiar with NYS agencies, and have heard of other governments doing the same.) The IRS admins keeping mail on the server for six months and then deleting it is not implausible. (Even if it is probably culpable because of the type of work the IRS does, but that’s personal opinion, not technical analysis.) Combine that with the difficulty of making local copies of email on Microsoft or Lotus mail servers and it’s possible that the only copies have been deleted. Especially if all seven “affected” individuals were manager types, not gearheads, and “too busy and important” to back up their email locallay, and too full of themselves to bother reading the repeated notifications from those IT geek peons about mail being deleted next weekend.

      If the IRS had explained something like the above, I’d have bought it. Skeptically, maybe, but it’d’ve been plausible enough.

      Or they could have combined the above with the policy of replacing PCs every X years, and the IT staff or Lerner choosing not to back up the “old emails” folders. It would have stretched credibility to claim that all seven people chose not to back up their old email, but combined with the PITA aspect it’s not too unbelievable.

      But they said that Lerner’s hard drive failed so badly that it couldn’t be recovered. That’s stretching it right there, especially with the timing of the discovery. Seven times? No way.

  2. Say the probability of this is 1 in 50 years. Multiply together the probabilities that this happens in the same year for six IRS employees and administrators. The probability of that is 1 in 50^6 years, or about once in 15 billion years.

    Okay, since I deal with probabilistic failure mechanisms every day, I will say that you’re neglecting the possibility of common cause failure. This can occur for several reasons: the drives were all from the same batch which contained a systemic mechanical error; the PCs were all connected to the same electrical bus, which could have overloaded them simultaneously; or they could have suffered some environmental catastrophe, such as a sprinkler going off over them all. The common cause failure probability is therefore a few orders of magnitude greater than that of multiple independent failures.

    Okay, now taking off the cap of my day job, I will say that Andy’s post got a multitude of well deserved angry comments about his ridiculous navel gazing. Oh sure, he does mention that all 7 of them failing identically makes it hard to believe, but actually posting that analysis at all simply lends some credence to the IRS’ impossible to believe, obviously complete bullshit excuses. They are lying so brazenly here that it’s as if they pulled out there dicks and pissed on you while you were chained down and unable to respond. They know that we know they’re lying, but they enjoy laughing at our impotent rage. Because they hold all of us in complete contempt.

    I have friends in the DC metro area, but if a big fucking meteor were to widen the Potomac basin without warning, there would be a long delay before I’d start grieving for them because I’d be too busy celebrating the eradication of that nest of vermin.

  3. To Physics Geek,

    Yes, the probability of say the building burning down is less than 1 in 15 billion years. But, that isn’t cited as the cause of the 7 computer failures. Nor any of the other more global catastrophes you mention.

    The IRS even claims to have “recycled” the problem drives, erased, and reused them. Laughable. They were unrecoverable, but reusable.

    The probability of what they claimed to have occurred is what I estimated.

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