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How retention works

Use retention rules to control how long data is preserved. You can:

  • Keep data for as long as you need it. If your organization is required to preserve data for a period of time, you can configure Vault to retain it even if users delete messages and files, and then empty their trash.
  • Remove data when you no longer need it. If your organization is required to delete sensitive data after a period of time, you can configure Vault to remove it from user accounts.
WARNING: An improperly configured retention rule can cause the immediate and irreversible purging of data from user accounts. Use caution when creating or changing retention rules. We recommend that you test new rules on a small group of users before applying them to your entire organization.

When retention coverage ends, Vault immediately begins to remove affected data. The time it takes to purge expired data varies depending on the type of data:

  • It can take up to 48 hours for expired messages to be removed from Gmail.
  • It can take up to 15 days for expired files to be removed from Drive. 

Two types of retention rules

Custom retention rule—Controls how long specific types of data are retained. You can create as many custom rules as your organization needs:

  • Mail and Groups—you can base custom rules on organizational units, date ranges, or specific search terms. 
  • Drive files—you can base custom rules on organizational units and define expiration based on last modified dates (to address staleness) or created dates (to address compliance requirements).

Default retention rule—Sets a global rule for your entire organization. The default rule applies to data only when a custom rule or a hold doesn't apply.

Important information about retention 

What's the difference between a hold and a retention rule?

Both preserve data in Vault, however, there are important differences:

Holds Retention rules

Holds are typically created in response to​ an investigation or legal issue.

Retention rules are used to proactively control how long data is preserved. 

Holds preserve data indefinitely.

Retention rules preserve data for a specified period.

 

A hold takes precedence over a retention rule. When a hold is deleted, data is then subject to applicable retention rules

After retention coverage expires, data is removed from all Google systems (unless it is being preserved by a hold)

Only those who have access to a matter can see who and what is on hold.

Only those who have retention rule privileges can manage retention rules.

Removing data from Vault removes the same data from Gmail, Groups, and Drive

Vault is fully integrated with Gmail, Groups, and Drive, and as such it manages data in-place. As a result, there's no separate archive. If you create a retention rule that applies to all messages or files, it could potentially delete data that your users expect to keep. For example, if you set a default retention rule to retain all messages for 365 days, and you have no custom rules or holds, Vault deletes every message in your domain that is older than 1 year.

The retention coverage period isn't affected by the date you create a retention rule

The retention coverage period begins:

  • Mail and Groups—on the day the message is received by Gmail or posted to a Group.
  • Drive—either on the day the file was created or the day it was last modified, depending on how you configured the retention rule.
Retention coverage periods can be extended by custom retention rules and holds

A message or file will not be expunged when:

  • It is being retained by a custom retention rule. Data is always kept as required by the custom rule with the longest retention period. Custom retention rules always take precedence over the default retention rule, even if the custom retention rule is shorter than the default retention rule.
  • It is subject to a hold. When the hold is removed, retention rules take effect as expected.
Data can remain in Vault after all retention rules expire
The background process that removes data from Gmail, Groups, or Drive keeps data available in Vault for a maximum of 30 additional days:
  • Messages in a user’s Gmail or posted in Groups when all retention rules expire are immediately removed from the user’s view. However, they remain available to Vault administrators for approximately 30 additional days, during which you can search for, export, or place holds on them. After 30 days, you can no longer retrieve these messages.

  • Messages deleted by users or Group Managers less than 30 days before retention coverage expires are kept as long as necessary to meet the maximum of 30 days. For example, if a user deletes messages and empties them from trash 20 days before the retention coverage expires, you can search for them in Vault for another 10 days. After that time you can no longer retrieve them.

  • Messages that were deleted more than 30 days before the retention coverage expires are immediately expunged at the end of the retention period, and you can’t retrieve them.

  • Files in Drive are expunged up to 15 days after retention coverage expires, and you can’t retrieve them.

See removal and expunging scenarios for additional examples of how this works.

Message threads are treated differently from individual messages

For message threads:

  • If one message in a thread is retained by a custom rule, the entire thread is also retained.
  • If a message in a thread isn't covered by any retention rules, only that message is expunged. The other messages in the thread are retained as required by applicable retention rules.
  • Retention rules based on labels use the date of the last-labeled message in a thread for retention purposes. See how this works in Example 1.
  • Vault treats undeleted draft messages just like every other message. If you create a default or custom retention rule, undeleted draft messages in your domain are also retained by the rule. You can choose Exclude drafts when creating creating a retention rule, and that rule does not affect draft messages. If a draft is deleted without being sent, it is expunged 30 days later, regardless of retention policies or holds.
When retention coverage expires, only files owned by those users are expunged

Retention rules retain all applicable files in a user’s Drive (including Team Drive files, if the rule was setup to include them). This includes files owned by or shared with users in the applicable organizational unit. However, when the retention coverage period expires, Vault expunges only the files owned by users of that organizational unit. Files shared from outside the organizational unit are never expunged.

Team Drive files can only be expunged by Team Drive specific retention rules

Retention rules retain all applicable files in a user’s Drive (including Team Drive files, if the rule was setup to include them). However, as Team Drive files are owned by the team and not by any specific user, only retention rules specific to Team Drive can expunge files in a Team Drive.

The implementation of retention rules and the expiration of files in Drive can be subject to delays
  • When you create or update a retention rule, it can take up to three hours for the rule to propagate. Files deleted by users during this propagation period are not retained and cannot be retrieved.
  • When a retention coverage period expires, it can take up to 15 days for affected files to be removed from Drive.
Retention rules and holds apply only to files created by users in your domain

Files created outside your domain and shared with your users are not subject to your organization’s holds or retention policies.

Vault won’t let you create conflicting Drive retention rules

Each custom retention rule you create for files in Drive must: 

  • Have a unique last-modified or created date.
    OR
  • Apply to a unique set of users

As an example, a conflict could occur if you have a rule that applies to an organizational unit, then you try to add a rule that applies to a Team Drive that all members of the organizational unit have access to. Vault would reject the new rule if it has the same created/last-modified date.

Additionally, you can use the Include Team Drives setting to make a retention rule unique. There’s no conflict for two rules with identical retention criteria if one rule includes Team Drives, and the other does not.

Removal and expunging scenarios

Let's say that the Vault administrator creates a retention rule that has a retention period of 180 days. This rule applies to a message in users' mailboxes. The timeline for removal and expunging depends on what users do with this message.

Scenario 1: Users leave the message in their mailboxes

Let's say that the message is received on May 1.

What happens to this message:

  • The message is removed from user mailboxes on day 181, the day after the retention period expires. If the rule applies to a message in the trash, it is also removed at day 181.
  • The period before expunge begins. The Vault admin can still search for and find this message for 30 more days.
  • The message is expunged on day 211 (181 + 30 more days), which is November 28.
Scenario 2: On the day the message was received, users delete the message forever

The message is received and deleted forever on May 1.

What happens to this message:

  • The period before expunge goes into effect the day users deleted the message forever from their mailboxes.
  • Expunging is based on retention period: May 1 (send/receive date) + 180-day retention period. Expunge is on October 28.
Scenario 3: Further into the retention coverage period, users delete the message forever

The message is received on May 1. On day 40, users delete the message forever.

What happens to this message:

  • The period before expunging goes into effect on day 40.
  • Expunging is based on retention period: May 1 (send/receive date) + 180-day retention. Expunge is on October 28.
Note: If users delete the message forever within 30 days of the retention period expiration, the period before expunge can extend beyond the retention period.
Scenario 4: Further into the retention coverage period, users move the message to trash

The message is received on May 1. On day 160, users move this message to the trash. They do not empty the trash. In other words, they do not delete forever.

What happens to this message:

  • On day 181, the message is removed from users' trash. (After 30 days, Gmail's normal behavior is to expunge messages from the trash. But this message is removed at day 181 to adhere with the retention rule.)
  • The period before expunge begins.
  • The message is expunged on day 211 (181 + 30 more days). Expunge is November 28.

Additional retention examples

The following examples illustrate some of the different factors that affect how long messages are retained and when they are removed:

Example 1: Unlabeled messages do not extend the life of a thread

When you apply a label in Gmail, the label is applied only to messages already in that conversation. Future messages in that conversation are not automatically labeled. If a label-based custom retention rule applies to a message in a conversation, the rule retains all messages in that conversation until the date that the last labeled message is to be removed from the user’s mailbox. Replies to the last labeled message do not extend the retention period for that conversation.

Mail in this example is retained as follows:

  • Custom rule retains labeled messages for 3 years.
  • There is no default retention rule.

Action Description
1 A user applies a label on March 31, 2013.
2 All labeled messages are removed on March 31, 2016. The unlabeled reply is unaffected by the retention rule.
Example 2: Threads are retained by the custom rule with the longest retention coverage period

If a new reply to a labeled conversation is subject to another custom retention rule, the entire conversation is retained according to the longest retention period. Mail in this example is retained as follows:

  • Custom rule retains labeled messages for 3 years.
  • Custom rule retains messages sent_after: 2013-07-01 for 7 years.
  • There is no default retention rule.
Action Description
1 A user applies a label on March 31, 2013.
2 The last message is received on July 31, 2013.
3 Because the last message was received after July 1, 2013, the thread is removed 7 years after the last message was received.
Example 3: Messages protected only by a default rule do not extend the life of a thread

If a new reply to a labeled conversation is retained only by a default rule and matches no custom rule, it does not extend the life of the conversation. The portion of the thread protected by the custom rule is removed, while the messages protected by the default rule persist.

Mail in this example is retained as follows:

  • Default rule retains messages for 5 years.
  • Custom rule retains labeled messages for 3 years.
Action Description
1 A user applies a label on March 31, 2013.
2 The labeled messages are removed 3 years later.
3 The unlabeled message is retained by the default rule for 5 years.
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