What are MSG files? And Why Can They Complicate eDiscovery?

31 August 2019 by Anith Mathai eDiscovery msg-files

Takeaway: An MSG file is how Outlook stores a single email. But Outlook stores other stuff as MSGs, too. And third-party applications often create custom MSGs. Which means your eDiscovery software may not recognize them. So, choose eDiscovery software that’s designed, developed, and run by the same team. They’ll troubleshoot issues much faster.

An MSG file is how Microsoft Outlook stores an email.

An MSG file is one with a ‘.msg’ file extension. And Microsoft’s email client Outlook uses the MSG format to store single email messages. When you drag-and-drop an email from Outlook to a folder on your computer, the email message is converted into an MSG file. This file stores the email text, but it also stores the email metadata – things like who sent the email, who received it and when, etc. And it also stores links and attachments from the email. Microsoft owns the MSG format, though. So, you have to open MSGs with Outlook. Or with Microsoft-compatible software.

MSGs are different from PSTs: One is a single email. The other is a group of emails.

An email gets converted into an MSG file when you move it out of Outlook. But while it’s in Outlook, it’s stored along with all your other emails, as a PST file (i.e., a file with a ‘.pst’ extension). PST stands for Personal Storage Table. And Microsoft developed PSTs in the 90s. (Learn more about PSTs.)

PSTs are a simple way to organize, store, and share batches of email.

For example, you can put all your emails from last year into a PST file, and ‘archive’ that PST. And you can have multiple PSTs (e.g., one for each year of the last decade) open at the same time, as well as your main, active PST. For eDiscovery, you can even load emails from different custodians into a single PST file. And you can store these PSTs on local hard drives, a USB drive, or in the Cloud. Also, as you move PSTs around, their metadata might change. But the metadata of the emails inside stays untouched.

MSGs do pop up in eDiscovery, though.

When you collect emails from a custodian, you’ll typically download a PST file. (It’s better than downloading individual MSGs.) And you’ll upload these PSTs into your eDiscovery software. However, if client emails have already been culled, then you may get individual MSGs instead. And MSGs help with privacy because they let you share an individual email with someone, instead of your entire mailbox.

The trouble is, MSGs aren’t always emails.

We’ve talked about MSGs as being email files. Which is true. But they can be other things too. That’s because email is just one of the things Outlook does. It’s really a personal organizer and information manager. So, it functions as a calendar, task manager, Rolodex, journal, notepad, and more. And whether it’s an email, an appointment, a task, or a contact – Outlook stores it as an MSG. Each is just a different MSG subtype.

And so, your eDiscovery software may not always recognize the MSGs you upload.

The cool thing about eDiscovery applications is that they open all kinds of files. So, once you upload your emails, you won’t need Outlook to read them. But there’s a problem. Many third-party add-ons for Outlook often create custom MSG subtypes, to hold special data. So even the best eDiscovery software won’t be able to read them.

Luckily, the teams behind leading eDiscovery applications can sort these bugs out easily.

At GoldFynch, for example, we’ve seen instances where Outlook mistakenly assigns the wrong subtype to a regular email. Which confused our eDiscovery software. But these were quick fixes – we just needed to modify our code slightly. Even simple things like moving an email out of Outlook and moving it back in can change its subtype and cause problems.

Which is why it’s important that your eDiscovery software is designed, developed, and run by the same team.

Because a single team can rapidly adapt their code. And you don’t lose time waiting for multiple teams to coordinate.

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