Read This Before Fixing PST Files for eDiscovery

10 December 2021 by Ross eDiscovery PST

Takeaway: You can use Microsoft’s ScanPST tool to fix corrupted PST files, but remember that this might change valuable file metadata. The solution? Avoid PSTs where possible and create a backup first if you absolutely have to fix them. For the long-term, though, consider investing in the right eDiscovery software. It’ll help you solve other PST and email eDiscovery problems before they pop up.

When PST files first came out, they were an ingenious new way to handle batches of emails.

Microsoft developed PST (Personal Storage Table) files as a way of handling data for their Outlook email application. More specifically, PSTs could store emails, attachments, calendar events, contact lists, and more in a way that other formats couldn’t.

But PSTs were soon criticized for a major design flaw: they get corrupted easily.

As great an innovation as they were, PSTs soon became a liability. For one, they’re device-specific, which means you can’t access them from multiple locations. So, if you’re using a PST on your work computer, you won’t also be able to use it on your smartphone while commuting. Then there’s the fact that PSTs aren’t compatible with most applications outside the Microsoft ecosystem, making eDiscovery more difficult. But their biggest issue is how easily they get corrupted. For example, if multiple people try accessing a PST simultaneously over a network, it’ll likely get corrupted.

Microsoft responded to this by creating a PST repair tool, which is great for day-to-day use.

When Microsoft realized how often customers had issues with PSTs, they designed an Inbox Repair tool – called ScanPST – to fix the more common problems. (You’ll find it automatically installed with Outlook.) ScanPST goes into the internal structure of a PST database, checking and repairing errors as it comes across them. If it spots an unreadable or corrupted ‘block’ in the database, it removes it – and perhaps also some emails, calendar entries, etc., in the process. This doesn’t often happen, though, and even when it does, users are happy to sacrifice a few emails to get the bulk of their data back.

But PST-repair isn’t ideal for eDiscovery because of how it might interact with file metadata.

With eDiscovery, you’re looking at more than just surface-level data. Sure, a file’s contents can be very useful, but there’s something even more valuable. And that’s ‘metadata.’

Think of metadata as a file’s digital footprint. I.e., a record of everything that’s ever happened to it.

When you create a file, your computer stores a bunch of information about it. Information like when the file was created, who created it, where it’s located, when it was last modified, and more. Some of this information is easy to find (e.g., a file’s author), while some isn’t (e.g., every edit made to a document). But all metadata is valuable and can help you win cases. For example, ‘file system’ metadata records the date and time a user plugs in a flash drive – which can tell you if/when someone transferred files off a computer. Similarly, a PowerPoint’s ‘user’ metadata field will list all the people that worked on it – which can prove whether someone unfairly took credit for your client’s work.

The trouble is you never know if you’re changing vital metadata by fixing a PST.

Metadata is valuable but also very fragile. For example, just opening a file can change its ‘last viewed’ metadata field. And copying a file to another folder will change its ‘creation date.’ (Remember, a copied file isn’t the same file anymore, and it gets a new creation time.) So, when fixing PSTs, you never quite know if you’re mistakenly changing metadata fields.

Then, what can you do instead? The best option is to avoid PSTs where possible or at least back them up before fixing them.

Ideally, you want to stay away from PSTs altogether. And with cloud services like Gmail and Yahoo!, this is becoming more possible. However, if you have to process/fix a PST file, make a copy of it as a backup. Yes, you’ll change the ‘creation’ metadata field, but you’re limiting any further damage. And you can prove that it’s the same as the original by referencing its hash value (i.e., its digital fingerprint).

But the long-term solution is to start using eDiscovery software to open and review your PSTs.

Fixing corrupted PSTs might be your immediate challenge, but there are long-term eDiscovery problems you’ll need to solve, too. For example, how will you search your PSTs for keywords, names, dates, etc.? Or how will you group related files as you begin to build a case? And how will you produce files to hand over to opposing counsel? The right eDiscovery application can solve all these problems by protecting metadata, giving you the right set of eDiscovery review tools, and guiding you through your production options.

And for small and midsize law firms, it’s worth using Cloud eDiscovery applications to help keep costs down.

At GoldFynch, we knew it would be relatively easy to protect metadata and offer the right review/production features. The real challenge is to make these features easy to use and keep prices competitive. Here’s how our software does this:

  • It costs just $10 a month for a 1 GB case: That’s significantly less than most comparable software. With GoldFynch, you know what you’re paying for exactly – its pricing is simple and readily available on the website.
  • It’s easy to budget for. GoldFynch charges only for storage (processing is free). So, choose from a range of plans (1 GB to 150+ GB) and know up-front how much you’ll be paying. You can upload and cull as much data as you want, as long as you stay below your storage limit. And even if you do cross the limit, you can upgrade your plan with just a few clicks. Also, billing is prorated – so you’ll pay only for the time you spend on any given plan. With legacy software, pricing is much less predictable.
  • It takes just minutes to get going. GoldFynch runs in the Cloud, so you use it through your web browser (Google Chrome recommended). No installation. No sales calls or emails. Plus, you get a free trial case (0.5 GB of data and a processing cap of 1 GB), without adding a credit card.
  • It’s simple to use. Many eDiscovery applications take hours to master. GoldFynch takes minutes. It handles a lot of complex processing in the background, but what you see is minimal and intuitive. Just drag-and-drop your files into GoldFynch, and you’re good to go. Plus, you get prompt and reliable tech support.
  • Access it from anywhere, and 24/7. All your files are backed up and secure in the Cloud.

Want to find out more about GoldFynch?