By Ceyda Tocsoy & Gordon Moffat -
Lawyers have a perfectly reasonable expectation of being able to find the date and time on which an email was sent or on which a document was modified or created. This should be effortless and quick. And yet, in e-discovery, this determination can be anything but straightforward from a technical and workflow perspective. The consequences of out-of-control time zone information can include improper display of time stamps on emails and documents when viewed or printed, metadata inconsistencies, interference with proper email threading and other analytic functions, mis-grouping of records during culling and a host of confusing and frustrating review issues.
Time zones are part of the structural “background noise” of our existence and we understand them intuitively in our work and personal lives. And yet, a closer look reveals much complexity. A “time zone” refers to the local time of a region or a country and how much it differs from Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is accepted as the world’s time standard (Buckle, 2019). Ideally, there would be 24 time zones across the world and each would be different by one hour. However, this is not the case as many places have 30- or 45-minute offsets, which increases the number of time zones in the world and introduces a maddening irregularity. Interestingly, UTC and GMT are not interchangeable -- there is actually a subtle difference between the two. “GMT is a local time zone where UTC is an international time standard”. Both are based on the Prime Meridian; but GMT is the local time zone at Greenwich, UK, and UTC “is the standard for coordinating time worldwide, just as the Prime Meridian is the standard for east/west longitude” (Groom, 2016).
Complicating the picture is Daylight Saving Time (DST), in which, for part of the year, the clocks are moved ahead by one hour for a variety of reasons such as energy savings and tourism. However, there are time zones where DST is not observed. For example, there are swathes of Canada where standard time applies all year. Also, the entire US state of Arizona never changes to DST. Countries not observing DST outside North America include Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Egypt, Vietnam and South Africa ("Daylight saving time by country", 2020).
Given that all these time zone variations manifest themselves in our computer systems and are reflected in the work performed on and with them, it is obvious that there must be planning involved in deciding the definitive time zone of digital records going into discovery databases. Some things to consider are the time zone(s) in which the majority of custodians reside, the jurisdiction or venue of the case, geographical repository locations, the different sites involved in the case, how many custodians from each location are of interest, and, last but not least, the legal case team’s preferences and direction.
Is there not an “easy button” for all these issues? Could we not just observe the UTC global time standard for time zone when processing ESI for review, analysis, inspection and production? This is certainly a viable option, but it comes with pros and cons:
- Provides a global and industry-wide standard which can be especially helpful with exchanging documents between parties
- Removes guess work and ambiguity in choosing a data processing time zone
- Provides a standard reference point for time off-sets and calculations
- Forces an absolute timeline on all collected and processed ESI
- Case teams might be unfamiliar with interpreting UTC; users may not be able to decipher UTC time stamps and how they relates back to their own local time zone – simplifying the displayed values often requires a separate calculation or additional information added to be added the database to assist that quick reference;
- Different observances of DST and the resulting different “version” of the correct time can cause inconsistencies within data sets
- Once processed, the records can show the date as “shifted” to another date, and, thus, one might be unable to determine the “correct” date (for example, an email sent at 10 PM EST on a Tuesday will show the date as Wednesday at 2 AM since the UTC off-set for EST is [UTC-4])
How should e-discovery professionals address these issues? As always, it pays to be proactive, considering and establishing general parameters in consultation with all stakeholders in an eDiscovery project:
- What is the likelihood that data processed with one time zone setting (UTC, for instance) would later need to display another? This is a possibility when creating productions, preparing for depositions and making exhibits for trial.
- Understand the effects of time zone processing/display/conversion issues in making productions using a standard image format – those time stamps on the TIFFs and JPGs are static.
- Realize that having no control, agreement or standard in the time zones being used by all parties making productions to each other can make quality control, “correct time” interpretation and use of both inbound and outbound productions more challenging and frustrating.
- Could there be advantages in discovery record time zone choice for case teams? Could different choices in time zone display assist in establishing chronologies, unravel issues and reveal patterns?
We have seen that e-discovery practitioners are adaptable, thoughtful and resilient. They are familiar with establishing repeatable workflows, knowing technical pitfalls and advising on the implications of choices. And, while no true standard has emerged beyond the suggestion of UTC normalization, the industry is reacting helpfully. Most e-discovery platforms offer flexible options for time zone processing and/or customized display. Many firms and vendors have put processing defaults in place to ensure consistency. E-discovery committees and guiding bodies worldwide have promulgated or are developing guidelines. Case teams are creating practice directives and including time zone considerations in ESI protocols.
ILTA provides a perfect means to exchange observations and ideas, especially surrounding knotty challenges. Let’s discuss some of the common issues and practices referenced above in greater detail -- come and join us at ILTA>ON for the session “Litigation Support Roundtable: Today's Challenges” where we will share a deep dive into time zone issue and explore some QC topics.
"Daylight saving time by country". (2020, 07 23). Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Daylight_saving_time_by_country&oldid=969034290
Buckle, A. (2019). What is a Time Zone? Retrieved from timeanddate.com: https://www.timeanddate.com/time/time-zones.html
Groom, T. (2016, 02 24). UTC, GMT, ESI and eDiscovery: It's About Time. Retrieved from Special Counsel: https://blog.specialcounsel.com/ediscovery/its-about-time-utc-gmt-esi-and-ediscovery/