Who knew that behind the scenes of the battle against the Galactic Empire and the Dark Side of the Force, one of the biggest weapons in the arsenal of the Rebel Alliance was e-discovery. In the more recent additions to the Star Wars universe – the animated series Rebels, and the anthology film Rogue One – the driving force behind the actions of the characters is often locating, acquiring, and transmitting electronically stored information (ESI).

In one recent episode of Rebels, two droids and a young pilot are sent on a mission to an Imperial facility to steal access codes for a starfighter factory. One of the droids locates and steals the codes, while the other accesses the Imperial network. An Imperial Agent notices the unauthorized access and remotely seizes control of one of the droids, hoping it will reveal the location of the rebel base. But the rebel ship’s crew notices the droid acting uncharacteristically (he’s being too nice, since he’s usually an independent and outspoken droid) and becomes suspicious. When the Imperial Agent attempts to use the droid to hack the Rebel’s computer, Captain Hera Syndulla sends a counter virus back to the Imperial Agent which overloads his ship's systems and causes it to explode.

Likewise, in the film Rogue One, the plot centers around a small group of rebels who are trying to steal the plans for the Empire’s newest superweapon The Death Star. Set in the time just before the events of the very first Star Wars film, A New Hope (1977), we see the team’s leader Jyn Erso and her compatriots go on what amounts to (sorry, spoiler) a suicide mission to steal data. What’s interesting here is that the data, even though electronic, lives in a physical location in a hard drive stored in a giant repository. When the characters physically steal the hard drive, their plan is to escape the planet with it. When that option is cut off, they then plan to beam the data to orbiting ships, and once that happens, the data is then saved onto a disc (I would think they could transmit it on to the rebel network, but that’s not nearly as dramatic) which is passed from hand to hand throughout the besieged ship until it ends up with Princess Leia, and we run into the beginning of A New Hope and the start of the entire saga.

From an e-discovery point of view, many companies might have more in common with this scenario than they think. With data stored in both physical locations (i.e. hard drives and laptops) as well as in the cloud, the ability to locate and deliver that data, as well as keep it secure, can prove a challenge.

In a recent case study, Chris Sitter, Head of Global E-Discovery & Digital Forensics at Juniper Networks, discusses the process of mapping his company’s data and bringing information governance policies into compliance. One of the more difficult parts of the process involved a “misunderstanding, from ten years before, that all email had to be retained. Hard drives were pulled from laptops and yellow sticky notes were put on them, often with illegible handwriting as to what was on that drive. They were stored under people's desks, in cabinets, in lockers, until they overflowed, and then they were put on pallets. When I came on board, there were over 14,000 hard drives from former employees. So, we inventoried all the drives and analyzed them, took a snapshot of the metadata, then went through the process of shredding the drives once we determined that none of the data was on hold. If anything was on hold, we simply followed our standard process.”

This is from a single company -- imagine what life was like for the Galactic Empire’s E-Discovery and Information Governance team!

While a majority of e-discovery cases still involve a lot of email, it’s important to remember that virtually every form of electronic data is up for grabs in e-discovery. And while it's one thing to identify and preserve various forms of ESI, it's often quite another to actually go out and collect it all. Different data sources have different levels of accessibility and present different collection challenges. Here is a breakdown of five common categories of ESI that might need to be collected for e-discovery:

  • Active: Data that you interact with on a regular basis, such as email and other traditional files that are stored on a local hard drive or network drive. This ESI tends to be fairly easy to access and collect.
  • Cloud/Mobile: By far the fastest growing category of ESI, this is data that is created and stored on cloud servers (e.g. cloud-based applications, cloud storage, social media, etc.) or mobile devices, outside the scope of corporate networks or formal IT oversight. Cloud providers have differing policies and processes with respect to accessing data, and it's helpful to familiarize yourself with those details before you need to actually collect the data. Meanwhile, collecting from mobile devices will usually require sophisticated tools and potentially outside experts. To gain a better understanding of the precipitous rise of mobile device ESI, check out our infographic, "The Value of Mobile Data in E-Discovery."
  • Offline: Data that is no longer in active use but is stored or archived. Even though offline data can't be accessed over a shared server, collecting it usually presents fairly minimal challenges as long as you know the physical location of the data and the system on which it's stored.
  • Backups: Traditional backup tapes or disaster recovery systems are designed to store data in the event that it must be restored. These systems compress files and are not easily searchable or accessible and therefore they tend to present significant collection hurdles.
  • Hidden: Previously deleted or fragmented files that exist on various systems and are usually not readily visible to regular system users. These files are highly inaccessible, and attempting to recover them requires specialized tools. More on hidden files below in our section on forensic imaging.

So, if we take anything away from the Star Wars universe, it’s that data management and information governance is a vital aspect of staying defensible. Sure, you may not be defending a moon sized space-station from attack or keeping the location of your secret rebel base hidden, but it’s right up there.

For more on this, check out our Comprehensive Guide to E-Discovery Data Collection. And may the Force be with you.