Nine years ago, the Defense Department's pursuit of a domestic surveillance program called Total Information Awareness proved alarming enough that Congress shut it down.
It was an idea ahead of its time. These days, total information awareness has become a necessity for businesses. Ignorance about internal documents can be damaging if litigation arises.
To help companies become more aware of the information they have stored, Google has begun offering an e-discovery service called Google Apps Vault. Its goal is to provide Google Apps Business customers with insight into their Gmail messages and their on-the-record Google Talk chats. It's a natural fit for a search company.
"Increasingly, litigation is about the documents you have and the documents you don't have," explains Google SVP and general counsel Kent Walker in a video. "So a good record keeping system and a good way of archiving those records allow you to be sure of what you've got and sure of what you don't have."
Walker describes Google Apps Vault as a dashboard that allows companies to evaluate all the relevant documents that might pertain to litigation and to respond to legal requirements more easily.
Google Apps Vault, "gives you the ability to search across your apps domain in a fully audited process," explained Jack Halprin, head of enterprise e-discovery for Google, in a phone interview.
The service, Halprin said, has three main capabilities: It can archive documents; it can enforce and apply document and data retention policies; and it can perform e-discovery, locking litigation-relevant data down as needed.
Google already provides a message discovery option through its Postini group, but Halprin characterize Apps Vault as a more advanced, more user-friendly offering than Postini Message Discovery. It's also more expensive: Apps Vault costs $50 per user per year, compared to $33 per user per year for Message Discovery.
"What makes Google Apps Vault really unique is that fact that this is the first archive that sits on top of the email and collaboration platform," he said.
One practical consequence of this architecture is that Apps Vault doesn't have to make copies of email and chat messages to store on a separate server.
In contrast to pricey enterprise e-discovery solutions, Halprin suggests that Google Apps Vault is affordable enough to allow small businesses to protect themselves against compliance risks. That's on top of the similarly priced Google Apps annual per user fee.