Electronic discovery (EDD*) and the destruction of digital evidence are global issues, affecting more than just North America. Throughout the world, electronic records are ubiquitous, and mushrooming in volume. Any law enforcement investigation in the world – whether a lawsuit, a tax audit, a police inquiry, an arbitration proceeding, a legislative hearing, an administrative probe or a government inspection – is likely today to seek access to electronic records (email, databases, flash drives, text messages, facebook posts, youtube videos, digital photographs, laptop hard drives, and more).
Naturally, to thwart an investigation, an unscrupulous holder of e-records (ESI) wants to destroy them. In the US, we call that destruction “spoliation” or “obstruction of justice.” Other jurisdictions may use different words for unlawful destruction of evidence, but the general concept of law must be universal. If law enforcement is to function, it must forbid and punish wrongful destruction of electronic evidence.
Many of the leading cases punishing the destruction of computer evidence are American, and to a lesser extent Canadian. But cases are emerging in other countries. . . .
One such case before the Singapore High Court is K Solutions Pte Ltd v. National University of Singapore  SGHC 143. This lawsuit was a contract dispute involving IT services provided by K Solutions (KS) to a university. Under the rules of discovery in the lawsuit, the university sought from KS certain email records, in addition to audio recordings of meetings between KS and university staff.
The court noted that Singapore rules of procedure (Order 24 rule 16(1) of the Rules of Court) require a litigant like KS to disclose relevant records to its adversary, the university. Evidence in this case showed that KS had possessed numerous relevant electronic mail records and audio recordings, which it had not released to the university. Although KS explained that some email records had been destroyed innocently under its policy of retaining e-mail only six months, the court was suspicious. The court believed KS’s email destruction policy should have been suspended because KS knew that litigation was likely. (In other words, using American parlance, KS should have applied a “litigation hold” on the email.)
The court observed that although the rules of procedure do not explicitly forbid a party from destroying records, the rules imply that records should be preserved when litigation is pending or anticipated and that wrongful destruction should be punished.
As the court considered KS’s deletion of email, it noted that KS, during the course of the lawsuit, had also been evasive and untruthful about its records. The court levied severe sanctions against KS, effectively granting judgment against it in favor of the university.
Analysis: From the perspective of any enterprise such as a business, law punishing the destruction of evidence is dangerous. Digital records are destroyed constantly, in the ordinary course of operations. But the law may punish destruction if a legal authority concludes the destruction should have been avoided. In any investigation the authority looks backwards and second-guesses what the defendant did in the past. Retrospection is always how investigations like lawsuits or tax appraisals work. With the benefit of hindsight, an action (or omission) of records management that seemed innocent to the defendant at the time can appear sinister later. All enterprises (US and non-US) therefore need margin for error. The law gives them incentive to be more generous in retaining computer records, especially electronic mail. And the law gives incentive to keep email of important people much longer than six months.
Mr. Wright serves as a public speaker on e-discovery, e-records management and IT security law. He speaks to professionals groups like Institute of Internal Auditors and SANS Institute.
*What is EDD? Electronic Data Discovery is a relatively new legal term of art. It refers to the process of finding, managing and disclosing electronic records (whether on a tape, a PC, an iPod, a cell phone or whatever device) as required in a lawsuit or legal investigation, such as a regulatory audit.