Posted in Classification, Compliance, Electronic records, Governance, Information Management, Microsoft Teams, Office 365 Groups, Products and applications, Records management, Retention and disposal, SharePoint Online

Managing MS Teams chat as records

(The image above was part of collector’s album issued in 1930 by Echte Wagner, a German margarine company. Source – https://flashbak.com/wonderful-futuristic-visions-of-germany-by-artists-in-1930-381451/)

On 19 May 2020, Tony Redmond published a very helpful article on the Office 365 for IT Pros website titled ‘Using Teams Compliance Data for eDiscovery‘.

In the article, Tony describes where and how the chat component of MS Teams is stored and how this might affect eDiscovery.

He also makes the important point that, while it may be possible ‘… to backup Teams by copying the compliance records in an Exchange Online backup … you’ll never be able to restore those items into Teams.’ In other words, it is better to leave the data where it was created – in MS Teams. The post explains why this is the case. 

This post draws on the article to describe the factors involving in managing the chat element of Teams as records. It notes that, while is is technically possible to export chat messages (in various ways), it may be much better from a recordkeeping point of view to leave them where they are and subject them to a retention policy.

Two key reasons for leaving chat messages in place are: (a) chat messages are dynamic and may not always be a static ‘thread’, and (b) the chat messages exported from Exchange may not contain the full content of the message. 

What is a Teams chat?

A Teams chat consists of one or more electronic messages with at least two participants – a sender and a receiver. 

msteamschatteams-1

There are two types of chat message in MS Chat:

  • One-to-one/one-to-many ‘chat’ (top icon above).
  • Channel-based Teams chat (second icon above). Teams chat is visible to all members of the Team. Within channel-based chats, a person may create a private channel which is visible only the person who created the private channel and any participants.

Messages created in both options could be regarded as records because they may contain evidence of business activity.

However, one-to-one chats have no logical subject or grouping. Only the chat messages in Team channel chat are connected through the context of the Team/channel. 

Where and how are chat messages stored?

The following is a summary from Tony Redmond’s article.

Chat messages are stored directly in the backend Azure Cosmos DB (part of the so-called Microsoft 365 ‘substrate’). The version in the database is the complete version of the chat message.

The messages are then copied, less some content elements (for example: reactions, audio records, code snippets), to a hidden folder in either (a) end-user mailboxes for one-to-one chat and private channel chats, and (b) M365 Group mailboxes for channel chat.

Most export options, including the export option in Content Search and eDiscovery, draw their content from the mailbox version of the message. This has potential implications for the completeness of the chat message as a record.

Additionally, any export can only be a ‘point in time’ record unless there is absolute certainty that all chat on a given subject have ceased. 

Implications for records managers

In addition to the concerns about a chat message (or exports of them) being complete, there are (at least) two other points relating to the management of chat messages as records in MS Teams:

  • Knowing if chat messages on any given subject exist. 
  • Applying an appropriate retention policy. 

Both of these points are discussed below. 

Finding content

The primary way to locate content on any given subject across Microsoft 365 is via the Content Search option in the Compliance portal. Access to the Content Search option is likely to be restricted. So, if records managers do not have access, they will need to ask the Global Administrators to conduct a search. 

Content searches are very powerful. This Microsoft article, ‘Keyword queries and search conditions for Microsoft 365‘ provides details on how to search. The screenshot below shows an example of a very simple keyword queries with the option to add conditions. 

ContentSearchQuery

Searches can be configured to find content in any or all of the following locations:

  • Users, Groups, Teams
    • Exchange email
    • Office 365 group email
    • Skype for Business
    • Teams messages [the copy in the mailbox]
    • To-Do
    • Sway
    • Forms
  • SharePoint
    • SharePoint sites
    • OneDrive accounts
    • Office 365 group sites
    • Teams sites
  • Exchange public folders

Note that content search only works on the copies of the items in the Exchange mailboxes, not the backend Teams database. Accordingly, there is some potential for it to not find some content.

Both the mailbox content and the content discovered by the search can be exported.  Teams chat messages can be exported as individual items or as a PST – but note that these message may exclude the elements as described in Tony’s article.

The problem with exporting the content either this way or via other export options (such as described in this post ‘How to export MS Teams chat to html (for backup)‘ (using the Microsoft Graph API) is that it creates a single ‘point in time’ copy; additional content could be added at any time and, if the chats were subject to a retention policy, they may already be deleted.

Managing chat messages ‘in place’ as records

As any export only creates a ‘point in time’ version, it makes more sense from a recordkeeping point of view to leave the chat messages where they are and apply one or more retention policies to ensure the records are preserved. 

Ideally, organisations that may create or capture records on a given subject will have taken the time to establish a way for users to do this, including through the creation of a dedicated Microsoft 365 Group with an associated SharePoint site and Team in MS Teams. 

For example, if there is a requirement to store all records relating to COVID-19, it would make sense (at the very least) to create a Microsoft 365 Group with that name; this will create: (a) a linked mailbox accessible by all members of the Group, (b) a SharePoint site with the same name, and (c) a Team in MS Teams. All of the content – emails, documents, chat, is linked via the same (subject) Group. 

This model makes it easier to aggregate ‘like’ information and apply a single retention policy. It assumes there is (or will be) some degree of control over the creation of Teams (or very good communication to users) to prevent the creation of random Teams, Groups and SharePoint sites – AND to ensure that end-users chat about a given subject within a Team channel, not in one-to-one chat. 

What retention period should be applied to chat messages?

The retention period applied to either one-to-one or Team channel messages will depend largely on the organisation’s business or regulatory requirements to keep records. There are two potential models. 

The simplest model is to have a single retention policy for one-to-one chats, and a separate retention policy for all Teams channel chats.

As one-to-one chats are stored in the mailboxes of chat participants, it makes sense to retain the chat content for as long as the mailboxes. However, some organisations may seek to minimise the use of chat and have a much reduced retention period – even as little as a few days. 

The creation and application of retention policies to Teams channel chat may require additional considerations. For example:

  • As every Team is based on a Microsoft Group that has its own SharePoint site, it is probably a good idea to establish Teams based on subjects that logically map to a retention class. For example, if ‘customer correspondence’ needs to be kept for a minimum 5 years, and there is a Group/SharePoint site/Team for that subject, then all the content should have the same retention policy – although the Group mailbox and SharePoint site may have a policy applied to the Group, with a separate (but same retention period) applied to the Team. 
  • There may be a number of Teams that contain trivial content that does not need to be retained as records. These Teams could be subject to a specific implicit policy that deletes content after a given period – say 3 years. 

In all cases, there is a requirement to plan for retention for records across all the Microsoft 365 workloads. 

What happens to chat messages at the end of a retention period?

At the end of a Microsoft 365 retention policy period, both the mailbox version and the database version of the Teams chat message are deleted. To paraphrase Tony’s article, the Exchange Managed Folder Assistant removes expired records from mailboxes. Those deletions are synchronized back to Teams, which then removes the real messages from the backend database.

No record is kept of this deletion action except in the audit logs. Accordingly, if there is a requirement to keep a record of what was destroyed, this will need to be factored in to whatever retention policy is created. 

 

Posted in Governance, Information Management, Microsoft Teams, Office 365, Office 365 Groups, Products and applications, SharePoint Online

What happens when you create a Team in MS Teams

On 27 March 2020 I asked, via Twitter, whether organisations that rolled out MS Teams will wonder in the future who created all the random (and randomly-named) SharePoint sites.

20200414_122632

The reason for this question was because many organisations, scrambling to establish ways for staff to work from home, decided to make use of MS Teams in their (often newly implemented) Office 365 suite of apps.

I have seen multiple organisations since late 2019 ask ‘who created all those SharePoint sites?’ when they reviewed the list. The current COVID-19 work-from-home situation will only make this situation ‘worse’ and, without effective oversight or controls, result in the creation of multiple uncontrolled SharePoint sites.

Unlike other products like Zoom, Whatsapp, Facetime and Skype, however, MS Teams is not a standalone product, but a core element in the Microsoft Office 365 ecosystem.

The key point is this – every Team in MS Teams has a linked SharePoint site (and an Exchange mailbox, where all the chat content is stored). You can’t disable these options.

What happens if you create a Team in MS Teams?

The good thing about the one-to-one chat element of MS Teams is that it’s relatively intuitive and easy to use, including on the mobile app. You only need to tell users it’s like Skype or Whatsapp, but for internal user only, and most pick it up quickly.

The Teams part of MS Teams is not quite as intuitive, but early adopters generally understand the basic concepts – that a Team has members, and you can have multiple chat channels for each Team.

Once end-users understand how a Team works (and this can take some time because one-to-one chat can include multiple people), they might notice this option at the bottom left of the app:

JoinCreateTeam

Creating a new team sounds like a great idea, so end-users may try:

JoinCreateTeam2

My guess is that end-users are more likely to want to ‘build a team from scratch’ as shown below, because the second option doesn’t really make sense.

JoinCreateTeam3

There is a good chance they will want the Team to be ‘Private’, although may not fully understand what this means. A Public Team sounds like a Yammer Group (or Community).

JoinCreateTeam4

So far, so good, the end-user can give the Team any name they like:

JoinCreateTeam5

At the bottom of the naming screen is the option to ‘Create’. The end-user is then invited to add members to their new Team. This seems a fairly obvious step, and they can add whoever they want. New members are by default ‘Members’ but they can be changed to ‘Owners’ if necessary. There is no control over this process.

JoinCreateTeam6

The new team now appears on the left-hand menu of MS Teams:

JoinCreateTeam7

The new team opens at the default ‘General’ channel.

On the main part of the Team, the following options are offered:

  • Along the top, ‘Posts’, ‘Files’, ‘Wiki’ and a + to add more applications. (Hint – the ‘Files’ option points to the SharePoint site that has been created behind the scenes).
  • Across the middle, three options to ‘Add more people’, ‘Create more channels’ and ‘Open the FAQ’
  • At the bottom, the option to ‘Start a new conversation’ with various other options including the ‘Meet now’ video option.

The end-user can now get on with chatting, sharing files, and adding apps to do other things.

But what else has happened?

As noted above, the ‘Files’ tab in the General channel gives a clue to the existence of the connected SharePoint site. End-users may not care terribly much about this, for them it provides the option to create, upload, share and collaborate on files.

A new Office 365 Group is created

But before we get to the SharePoint site, it’s important to understand the one-to-one relationship between a Team in MS Teams and an Office 365 Group. If you do not know what an Office 365 Group is, please read this Microsoft guidance on Office 365 Groups.

In very simple terms:

  • Every new Team in MS Teams creates a new Office 365 Group.
  • The Owner of the Office 365 Group is the Owner of the team; the members of the Group are the Members of the team, as added by the person who created the Team.

The new Office 365 Group appears in the list of Groups in the Office 365 Admin portal, as shown below. Access to this part of the Admin portal is normally restricted to Global Admins (who would normally be responsible for creating other types of AD Groups, such as Security Groups and Distribution Lists.

A new Exchange mailbox has been created

Note that the process has also created an Exchange mailbox with a Group email address. The new Exchange mailbox will now appear in the Outlook client of everyone in the Team – something they are unlikely to notice.

JoinCreateTeam8

As noted above, all the chat messages in the Team are stored in a hidden folder in the Exchange mailbox for the Team.

A new SharePoint site has been created

If we go across to the SharePoint Admin portal, which is normally restricted to Global Admins and SharePoint Admins, we can see that a new SharePoint site has been created, and is owned by the ‘Group owners’.

JoinCreateTeam9

The SharePoint Admin has had no involvement in the creation, naming, or structure of this new site. And, just to add another factor, the SharePoint Admin cannot access the site – see below.

The Team owner may not realise it, but they now have a SharePoint site. The new site’s ‘Documents’ library appears in the ‘Files’ tab as shown below.

JoinCreateTeam11

And, just to add a confusing element, the site includes the invitation (at the bottom left) to create a new Team!

JoinCreateTeam10

As noted above the SharePoint Admin can ‘see’ that this site exists in the list of sites but cannot actually access it. The Global Admin, on the other hand, can access it.

JoinCreateTeam12

So the person responsible for managing SharePoint across the organisation cannot access the SharePoint site, which is not a good thing from an information governance point of view.

The reason they cannot access the site is because they were not added to the Site Collection Admin Group when the site was created. And, just to make it a bit more confusing, the ‘Users and Permissions’ section of Site Settings, where the ‘Site collection administrators’ section is found (see screenshot below), does not appear in Office 365 Group-based SharePoint sites.

SPOSiteSettings

So, how does the SharePoint Admin get access to this site to configure and manage it? There are two ways:

  • The Global Admin can go to /_layouts/15/mngsiteadmin.aspx (after the site name URL) and add them (or a Security Group with them in it) there.
  • The SharePoint Admin can click on the site details in the SharePoint admin portal and add him/herself as an Owner. This puts them in the Site Collection Admin section along with the Group Owner.

Summary

This post began with a simple question – if organisations allow end-users to create Teams to work from home, how will they manage all the SharePoint sites that are created through the process described above?

There is no one answer to this question but it’s worth understanding exactly what happens – and what else is created (including Planner) – when a Team is created. Organisations seem to go one of two ways:

  • Let end users create Teams and deal with the consequences later, including attempts at auto-classification and retention policy application across the various elements of the new Office 365 Group – mailbox, SharePoint site, Team chat. This is the Microsoft default and the preference of many organisations that are don’t have compliance issues or can accept the risks of uncontrolled information stores.
  • Control the creation of Teams, but make any controlled process as easy as possible for end-users to keep them working quickly, and manage the content in mailboxes, SharePoint and Teams proactively. While not the preferred option, it will help with the management of corporate information down the track.

 

Posted in Governance, Information Management, Microsoft Teams, Products and applications, Records management, SharePoint Online

Why end-users cannot create a Team in MS Teams – a common question

In the last few months, as more and more organisations implement Office 365, I have been asked one of two questions relating to teams:

  • From IT – How do we stop end users creating a new Team in MS Teams
  • From end users – Why can’t I create a new Team?

This post is for end-users, to help understand why the ability to create a new Team in MS Teams has been disabled.

A Team is (much) more than it appears

The simple reason is because of the flow-on effect (see below) and the need for IT to maintain control over the environment, especially the creation of SharePoint sites.

The diagram below, an extract of a larger diagram created by Matt Wade (credit below image), visually shows what happens when a new Team is created (and, for that matter, various other elements).

O365GroupsTeamsetc
Source: @thatmattwade / https://www.jumpto365.com/infographics/everyday-guide-to-office-365-groups

A new Team creates a range of other things (described below) including a SharePoint site. The SharePoint site that is created is visible as the ‘Files’ tab in the Team channel, as you can see below:
image.png

A Team is directly linked with an Office 365 Group

The thing that links all these things together is what are called ‘Office 365 Groups’ (O365 Groups).

O365 Groups only exist in Office 365 and are like a cross between: (a) an Active Directory (AD) Security Group (that controls/grants access to IT resources and systems) and (b) usually small Distribution Lists (a list of people you can email) – but with a lot more functionality.

What do you get with every Office 365 Group?

As can be seen in the diagram above, every O365 Group creates a number of other Office 365 elements. Each Group:

  • Has at least one owner. This is the person who creates the Group, and becomes the linked SharePoint site owner and the owner of the Team. If there is only one owner, then the owner leaves, there is no-one to manage the group, SharePoint site and Team members. This is one good reason why this should be centralised in IT (who usually create all other AD group types).
  • Has members. Members usually belong to a logical and generally smaller (<30 people) business unit or work team, similar to membership of an AD Security Group. Membership of the Group (and Team and SharePoint site) is managed by the Owner.
  • Has a dedicated SharePoint site. The URL of the site is the same as the Group. The members of the Group have default add/edit rights to the SharePoint site. Others, and AD Security Groups, can also be added to the SharePoint site directly (for example, as visitors) but that only gives them access to the site, NOT the Team or the mailbox.
  • Has an email address/mailbox. The mailbox for the Group appears in the Outlook of every member of the group. You can send and receive mails to/from that Group (similar to a Distribution List).
  • Has a Planner and a OneNote notebook.
  • Can be linked to a Team in MS Teams when the Group is created.

What happens if you allow end-users to create Teams?

Conversely, if you create a Team in MS Teams, it creates everything in the previous dot points but with no controls for:

  • Office 365 Group/Team naming. End-users can create a Team with whatever name they want, which then assigns the same name to the Office 365 Group and SharePoint site.
  • Group membership. The person who creates the Team becomes the Owner of the O365 Group and is responsible for managing the Group/Team membership.
  • SharePoint site structure including document library/ies and folders. If the Team uses only the default ‘Documents’ library, it is very likely to create multiple folders, including via File Explorer. The likely outcome is the mess that is often found on network file shares.
  • Everything else that comes with every Team, including Planner and OneNote.

Some organisations have allowed their employee to create new Teams in MS Teams and then had to retrospectively clean up the mess created by random SharePoint sites, poor Team names, confusion between O365 Group members and AD Security Group membership and quite a bit more.

Should we even use Teams?

Yes. Read this post from CMSWire titled ‘The State of Play with MS Teams‘ to see why it is a very useful application to implement. Three points from that article:

  • Chat is the most used function in Teams, making up 70% to 95% of all messages. Chat has 13 times the number of messages than Teams channels. Chat is being used to keep local teams connected in real time.
  • Staff, on average, are members of three teams but are mostly active in one. While most employees have a “favored” team, Teams operating as forums or communities were identified to help employees engage beyond their local team.
  • The most active team has 25 members, all active and connected to each other, interacting at the rate of 365 channel interactions/per day or 14 interactions/per member/per day. This does not include chat.

Note that the most active team has 25 members. This underlines the point made earlier that Office 365 Groups work best when there are fewer than 30 members.

Where is the data stored?

Finally, where is the data stored?

  • One-to-one chats:
    • Chats are stored in a hidden folder in the participant’s email mailboxes.
    • Documents are stored in the OneDrive of participants.
  • Chats in the Team channels
    • Chats are stored in a hidden folder in the Office 365 Group’s mailbox.
    • Documents stored in these channels are stored in the O365 Group’s linked SharePoint site.

Should we use Teams?

Yes, definitely, but understand what is happening ‘under the hood’ if you allow end-users to create new Teams.

Organisations that are new to Office 365 should consider disabling the ability for end-users to create Teams by disabling the ability for end-users to create Office 365 Groups.

Smaller organisations can leave the option available but ensure that there is a guide for the creation of new Teams, including naming conventions and Group/Team membership management.

It will generally be better to centralise the creation of MS Teams in IT as they will normally be responsible for the creation of Active Directory Security Groups and should therefore be responsible for the creation of the more powerful Office 365 Groups.

Posted in Compliance, Conservation and preservation, Electronic records, Governance, Information Management, Information Security, Legal, Records management, Retention and disposal, Security

Destroying digital records – are they really destroyed?

Most people should be aware that pressing the ‘delete’ option for a file stored on a computer doesn’t actually delete the item, it only makes the file ‘invisible’. The actual file is still accessible on the disk and can be retrieved relatively easily or using forensic tools until the space it was stored on is overwritten.

Traditional legacy electronic document and records management (EDRM) systems have two components:

  • A database (e.g., SQL, Oracle) where the metadata about the records are stored
  • A linked file share where the actual objects are stored, most of which are copies of emails or network file share files that remain in their original location.

In most on-premise systems, email mailboxes, network file shares, and the EDRMS database and linked file share are likely to be backed up.

When a digital record comes to the end of its retention and is subject to a ‘destruction’ process, how do you know if the record has actually been destroyed? And even if it is, how can you be sure that the original isn’t still stored in a mailbox, network file share, or a back up?

This post examines what actually happens when a file is ‘deleted’ from a Windows NT File System (NTFS), and questions whether digital records stored in an EDRMS are really destroyed at the end of the retention period.

The Windows NTFS Master File Table (MFT)

Details of every file stored on a computer drive will be found in the NTFS Master File Table (MFT).

In some ways, the MFT operates like a traditional electronic document management system – it is a kind of database that it records metadata about the attributes of the digital objects stored on the drive. These attributes include the following:

attriblist

As noted in the diagram above, the details stored by the MFT include the $File_Name and $Data attributes.

  • The $File_Name attributes include the actual name of the file as well as when it was created and modified, and its size.  This is the information that can be seen via File Explorer and is often copied to the EDRMS metadata.
  • The $Data attribute contains details of where the actual data in the file is stored on the disk (in 0s and 1s) or the complete data if the file is small enough to fit in the MFT record.

If the MFT record has many attributes or the file data is stored in multiple fragments on a disk (for example as a file is being edited), additional MFT ‘extension’ records may be created.

When a file is deleted, the MFT records the deletion.

  • If the file is simply deleted, the record will remain on the disk and can be recovered from the Recycle Bin.
  • If the file is deleted through SHIFT-DEL or emptying the Recycle Bin, the MFT will be updated to the ‘Deleted’ state and update the cluster bitmap section to set the file’s cluster (where the data is stored) as being free for reuse. The MFT record remains until it is re-used or the data clusters are allocated in whole or part to another file.

So, in summary, ‘deleting’ a file does not actually delete it. It may either:

  • Store the file in the Recycle Bin, making it relatively easy to recover, or
  • Change the MFT record to show the file as being deleted but leave the file data on the desk until it is overwritten.

How does an EDRMS store and manage files?

The following summary relates to a well-known Electronic Document and Records Management System (EDRMS). Other systems may work differently but the point is that records managers should understand exactly how they work and what happens when electronic files are destroyed at the end of a retention period.

Most EDRM systems are made up of two parts:

  • A database (SQL, Oracle etc) to store the metadata about the record.
  • An attached file store that stores the actual digital objects.

When EDRM systems are used to register paper or physical records (files and boxes), only the database is used.

When digital records are uploaded to the EDRMS:

  • The metadata in the original file, including the file type, original file name, date created, date modified and author are ‘captured’ by the system and recorded in the new database record.
  • Additional metadata may be added, including a content or record ‘type’.
  • The record will usually be associated with a ‘container’ (e.g., ‘file’). This containment makes the record appear to be ‘contained’ within that container, whereas in fact it is simply a metadata record of an object stored elsewhere.
  • The original record filename is changed to random characters (to make it harder to find, in theory) and then stored on the attached (usually Windows NTFS) file store, often in a series of folders.
  • A link is made between the database record and the record object stored in the file store (the MFT record).

When the end-user opens the EDRMS, they can search for or navigate to containers/files and see what appears to be the digital objects ‘stored’ in that container/file. In reality, they are seeing a link to the object stored (randomly) in the file store.

What happens when an EDRMS record is destroyed?

If there is no requirement to extend their retention, or keep them on a legal hold, records may be destroyed at the conclusion of a retention period.

For physical records, this usually means destroying the physical objects so they cannot be recovered, a process that may include bulk shredding or pulping.

For digital records, however, there may be less certainty about the outcome of the destruction. While the EDRMS may flag the record as being ‘destroyed’ it is not completely clear if the destruction process has actually destroyed the records and overwritten the digital records in a way that ensures its destruction to the same level as destroyed paper files. 

Also:

  • If the original associated NTFS file share becomes full and a new one is used, the original is likely to be made read only.
  • There is likely to be a backup of the EDRMS.
  • The original records uploaded to the EDRMS probably continue to exist on network files shares, in email, or in back up tapes.
  • Digital forensics can be used to recover ‘deleted’ files from the associated file share.

Consider this scenario:

  • An email containing evidence of something is saved to a container in an EDRMS.
  • The container of records is ‘destroyed’ after the retention period expires.
  • A legal case arises after the container is ‘destroyed’
  • A subpoena is made for all records, including those specific records.
  • Has the record actually been destroyed, or could it still be recoverable, including from backups or the digital originals?

Is it really possible to destroy digital records, and does it matter?

Yes, records can be destroyed by overwriting the cluster where the record is kept, and some EDRM systems may offer this option.

But:

  • Do EDRM systems overwrite the cluster when a digital record is destroyed in line with your records retention and disposal authorities, or simply mark the record as being deleted, when it is still technically recoverable?
  • Could the record still exist in the network file shares or email, or in backups of these or the EDRMS?
  • Might it be possible to recover the record with digital forensics tools?
  • Does it matter?

It might be worth asking IT and your EDRMS vendor.

References: