back to article IRS 'inadvertently' wiped hard drive Microsoft demanded in audit row

The IRS has declined to produce data in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) battle between itself and Microsoft – because the taxmen deleted the information after receiving the information request. In a filing [PDF] to the US District Court of Western Washington this month, Uncle Sam's Internal Revenue Service said it would be …

  1. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

    inadvertent" blunder?

    And pigs fly.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: inadvertent" blunder?

      Well.. that is our tax dollars at work. The IRS can now say that by wiping and re-using the HDD, they saved the taxpayer money... but then there's the lawyer fees.

    2. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

      Re: inadvertent" blunder?

      Never forget Hanlon's Razor.

      1. Flashdunce

        Re: inadvertent" blunder?

        > Never forget Hanlon's Razor.

        "... but don't rule out malice"

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: inadvertent" blunder?

      Ah, the new 'the dog ate my homework' excuse for use in the technical age.

      Maybe the court should put the head honcho of the IRS in jail until the information is produced and work down the chain of command for every day of delay.

    4. MyffyW Silver badge

      Re: "inadvertent" blunder?

      It's like a John Grisham novel - I can't find myself sympathising with either party.

      Also, just like Grisham, they'll be another story in a similar vein out next year

  2. Eddy Ito Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    Is it me or does this sound suspiciously like the missing IRS emails of a few years back? And with new rules saying they can go back six years to audit you instead of three. So much for presumption of innocence if they can simply toss inadvertently delete all the proof and get away with it.

    1. IvyKing
      Mushroom

      Pretty much the same thought I had reading the article. OTOH, the IRS was destroying evidence requested in a lawsuit and the personnel involved could end up being found in contempt of court.

    2. tom dial Silver badge

      One might suppose that after the unfortunate episode with Lois Lerner's workstation IRS would have instituted regular backups. Of course if enough time passes those backups will expire, as might have happened here.

    3. Stevie Silver badge

      Bah! (4 Eddy Ito)

      The perceived wisdom *before* any "new rules" were enacted was to keep SEVEN years worth of tax records.

  3. GrumpyKiwi Silver badge
    FAIL

    Yeah try using the "we accidentally wiped the hard disk with the information you want" when the IRS come fishing and see how far you get.

    1. Dr. Mouse Silver badge

      Exactly what I thought. If you told the tax man "Sorry, I accidentally deleted all my records, whoopsy!"... I don't think "Well, you did it and got away with it, so why shouldn't I?" would cut it!

      1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge

        If you have an internal company document that states that standard policy is to wipe all data (or better yet, discard encryption keys) for data no longer required to do your daily business, then I don't see how this would be any different to what the IRS has done.

        But then privilege is a very literal translation.

        1. LDS Silver badge

          Just usually tax laws ask you to retain data they may ask you for several years, and keep them on paper books or read-only media, timestamped...

  4. P. Lee Silver badge

    This may not be the end of it

    If the drive is intended for re-use, I'd expect the process to be "backup then wipe."

    Wiping it before releasing it into the reuse population has got to be an advance on many organisations' practises, right?

    1. Snowy

      Re: This may not be the end of it

      Followed by we re-used the backup tape too.

      1. Trigonoceps occipitalis

        Re: This may not be the end of it

        And Amazon can't find it in the cloud. (Other providers are available.)

  5. localzuk

    Huh?

    So organisations like the IRS have data only on a user's workstation hard drive? No backups? No central data storage?

    Sounds absurd to me.

    1. Richard 26

      Re: Huh?

      Not as absurd the idea that nobody working in a large organization ever stored a file locally on a laptop's hard drive. It happens all the time.

      It goes without saying that there shouldn't be anything that needs long term storage solely on a hard drive. However, there might be some interesting bits of work-in-progress stored locally, that might be of use to a lawyer fishing for something.

    2. Crazy Operations Guy Silver badge

      Re: Huh?

      Why do they even re-use disks? Hard disk are ridiculously cheap nowadays, so why wouldn't they just pop the drive out of the machine when the employee left, placed it in a sealed anti-static bag, cataloged it and kept it in a warehouse somewhere.

      They should also have something running on the local machine that anything* the user creates is backed up to a central file server and preserved on a backup until the sun goes dark. Government records need to be preserved to prevent shenanigans like this from happening, I want to know that 200 years from now, an archivist can dig through old files and know that "Carol in payroll had a birthday so there is left over cake in the break room". If a government employee shits in the woods, I want a record of it so we can hold them accountable for everything they do in the name of the government.

      *Well, obviously temporary files / miscellaneous auto-created system files should get a pass, because there is no point in keep billions of copies of 'desktop.ini' and ~document.docx around.

      1. MonkeyCee Silver badge

        Re: Huh?

        I have a friend who is a military historian, based in the US.

        He reckons there is a far more complete record of what went on in the military prior to mass adoption of computers. For example, American civil war orders, supply lists and casualty lists are still usuable in their original forms. This compares to US military orders and records form the 70s and 80s which are in some obscure file format and often corrupted, since they aren't a priority to be copied and backed up.

        Thus he has a better idea about which units had cake in 19th century than if anyone had cake in the 20th.

    3. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Huh?

      I'm am concerned about sensitive tax data being stored on a LAPTOP. That type of information should not be taken from the building by an employee.

      People working from home for the IRS is too scary to be allowed.

  6. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

    If I read this right it's not a blunder per se, but following an established procedure similar to something every large organisation has. Employee leaves, personal workstation is re-used, cat pictures on internal HD get erased.

    The real question is: why was relevant information stored locally on a workstation's HD and not on the server? (Or: was there really anything interesting on that disc in the first place?)

    If Microsoft wasn't involved, this wouldn't have made the news.

    1. Captain Scarlet Silver badge

      Lucky you, every place I have worked at requires a backup of any files from said machine before being wiped in case its required.

  7. Nick L

    oh. him.

    Sco's bulldog... Yes, that went well. Thank you again to groklaw!

    1. Paul Shirley

      Re: oh. him.

      Seeing the name my first thought was this was probably deliberate spoiliation. Hard to forget the dirt tricks in the sco case he lost so badly. Hope it goes as well for Boies this time.

      1. Lars Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: oh. him.

        He got his millions, for a guy like him that's more important than winning a case he probably knew was stupid from the very beginning. I doubt I would be much different if a lawyer.

        1. Paul Shirley

          Re: oh. him.

          Sorry Lars, his firm lost 10's millions on the SCO affair.

          Early in the case they bought into the scam to increase their take, later when it started falling apart they bought their way out of that by accepting a fixed fee cap to complete the case. The case isn't finished and costs exceeded the fee cap before it even reached trial.

  8. Curtis

    "Recycled", not "Reused"

    Seeing as this is a government agency, the use of the word "recycled" leads me to believe that the hardware was sent to an EPA recycled to be either destroyed (the usual with fed drives) or maybe, possibly, refurbished and sold.

    I worked for one of these recyclers for 3 years, and the standard we used with 3 letter agencies was to run a DOD wipe, then destroy the drives. (In one case, I got to plug it in, spin it up, and hit it with a hammer to pulverize the platter. In front of the "client" :) )

    1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge

      Re: "Recycled", not "Reused"

      I understand that zapping the platters with a stun gun can be quite effective too :)

  9. kmac499

    We have an App for that...

    Well If I was Microsoft; I would take the opportunity to offer the IRS a cut price offer on an Azure Cloud hosted in Ireland. Just for a laugh.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    it could easily be inadvertent

    How many of us have *not* been told to retain drives / machines (by means process based or even just verbal) by some business people ignorant of how IT works and assuming that all laptops go into an Indiana Jones warehouse where they stay archived forever, and we just buy new everything for everyone?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: it could easily be inadvertent

      I worked at Statefarm for a while, and they do have a massive Indiana Jones-style warehouse were every single old laptop gets stored (the Flex warehouses in Bloomington, IL in case anyone that works there is wondering). I had to work in that crap hole for a while.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Two shitty organisations embracing each other, it's a choice of the lesser of two weevils who to shout hooray for.

  12. paulf Silver badge
    Windows

    I'm conflicted on Microsoft at the moment

    On the one hand they're taking on the US Govt in ways like this and also on Safe Harbour Vs Patriot act regarding Uncle Sam trying to force access to data in their Irish data centre.

    On the other they're shoving Win 10 at Windows 7/8 users with some of the most devious methods they've ever tried. They certainly seem to be more evil now than they ever were under Bill G.

    Icon - certainly not beyond Win 7 extended support...

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: I'm conflicted on Microsoft at the moment

      It's not difficult. Just look at it case by case. What's in Microsoft's interest in that particular case?

  13. The Boojum

    Manager: "Here, wipe and recycle this hard disk."

    Employee: "Why?"

    Manager: "Don't ask, just do it."

    There, hard drive wiped by someone who didn't know about its relevance to ongoing litigation.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Can't Bill get a backup from the NSA?

    They are pretty chummy these days, aren't they?

  15. wsm

    Only in government work...

    ...is incompetence a virtue.

    Plausible deniability anyone?

  16. TAJW

    And the incompetence of the IRS is fully on display again. Worse yet, they, and other government agencies, are allowed to act this way with impunity, yet the citizens get taken to task for the slightest infraction. I believe Microsoft should win this case by default, and all those involved on the government side should be summarily fired and lose their pensions. After a few such actions, perhaps then government agencies would start to act responsibly.

    Just maybe.

    1. Crazy Operations Guy Silver badge

      I'm just happy to know that they'll be first up against the wall when the revolution comes. I understand the need for the IRS and have sympathy for sot of the hapless drones that work there, but the corrupt ones who abuse their power like this really get my goat...

      I suppose my sympathy for those workers is due to all the hatred they get from the average citizen when its the law-makers with their badly-written tax laws that deserve the hate. I wish it were just a simple "An entity gains money from another entity, that entity now owes 20% of that in tax", no more of this "If you make between X and Y dollars per you year, you owe Z dollars, but if you happen to fall under rule A, you now owe 1.1*Z dollars, however, if you fall under exception b addendum c but not addendum d, you only owe 0.95*Z dollars".

      I want to live in a world were "Tax Account" is no longer a valid occupation and the government doesn't need to produce "EZ" versions of your tax return and you just have to trust that you aren't getting screwed over by taking the easy route (rather than getting screwed over by some guy charging you to do it for you).

      I would have no problem with taxes if it was a simple as seeing that 30% was taken from each paycheck and that would be the only time I ever dealt with the IRS.

  17. Asterix the Gaul

    It's unclear to me what the 'problem' is here.

    If a company like M$ submits year end accounts for tax purposes to the IRS,they would be failing their own interest not to keep exact copies,for which the company & it's accountants\auditors do retain the same copies.

    That being said,only internal IRS records would differ 'IF' previous years submissions became subject to inquiry,for which M$ would then be entitled to full disclosure.

    As I understand it, American tax records are 'open-house',where the public can see & have 'transparency' in fiscal judicy.

    It should be illegal for the IRS to erase submitted data,whether it be from individuals or corporations et'c,including data raised in the administration of the tax system itself by the IRS.

    The IRS is publicly funded administration, the system should never have the power to destroy data raised by it's own administration,without first consulting or informing the taxpayer first.

    Doing so raises the possibility of a subsequent failure to administer the system in accordance with principles of openness & justice.

    I am as much against big business as Iam against 'Big Brother',but until proven otherwise, the benefit of doubt must always rest against the system in favour of the taxpayers.

  18. Archivist

    Ha ha ha

    They deserve each other!

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