What is ESI

Decoding ESI: A guide to user and machine-generated data in law.

A New Neologism Emerges

Starting in the 1970s, courts began handling cases that involved computer data. Even before the formal definition of "Electronically Stored Information" (ESI) existed, the concept and its importance became undeniable in the judiciary and the business world. For years, courts had encountered and ruled on aspects of digital information. Yet, there needed to be a clear definition of what was within the scope of discoverable material. In 2006, the law finally caught up with technology. That year, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP) were amended to recognize ESI explicitly. These new amendments coined the term ESI and created the language that marked a pivotal moment where digital records became officially in the legal processes and corporate governance.

More than Just User Content

ESI encompasses a wide range of digital data, extending beyond the content explicitly produced by users (like emails and documents) to include machine-generated data, such as system logs, metadata, and all the invisible digital footprints left by devices and software applications. This broad definition makes ESI highly relevant in legal contexts where such information can be critical in litigation, compliance, and information governance.

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Everything is an Artifact

Much user data resides not within traditional "documents" but as database entries—like those powering messaging apps. Again, we need a better word to describe and encompass all these ideas. The term "artifacts" has emerged as a preferred terminology to describe individual items of interest in ESI. This shift reflects a more nuanced understanding of how relevant information spills out of conventional formats into many other data structures. 

Digital artifacts are significant in legal and forensic investigations. They serve as evidence that can reveal patterns, behaviors, and actions that may not be clear from user-generated content alone. Timestamps, location data, and system vents can uncover valuable insights into users' activities.

Challenges and Considerations in Managing ESI

Managing ESI presents a unique set of challenges and considerations, particularly as we consider the landscape of digital artifacts. The explosive growth in diversity of these artifacts adds several layers of complexity to data management practices.

Firstly, the sheer volume and diversity of data pose significant challenges. Organizations must sift through an immense amount of information, discerning what is relevant for legal or business purposes. The rapid pace of technological change makes this task all the more difficult.

In addition, privacy and security concerns are also grabbing the mic. Regulations like GDPR and CCPA now impose strict guidelines on data handling. Ensuring the integrity and confidentiality of sensitive information is critical to compliance and preventing data breaches.

Legal implications add another layer of complexity. The admissibility of digital artifacts in court requires meticulous data governance, including lawful collection, preservation, and documentation. Organizations must navigate these legal waters carefully, balancing ESI management's technical aspects with regulatory compliance.

Best Practices for Ongoing ESI Management

  • Implement a Comprehensive Data Governance Policy: Establish precise data collection, storage, and access guidelines to ensure compliance and security. This policy should cover all forms of ESI and digital artifacts.
  • Regular Data Audits: Conduct periodic audits to understand your data's relevance and whether it should be retained or disposed of. Audits ensure data minimization and efficiency and limit potential liabilities.
  • Use Advanced Data Mapping Tools: Employ tools that accurately map and classify data across systems. These tools assist in swiftly identifying pertinent electronically stored information (ESI) during legal investigations or compliance audits.
  • Invest in Employee Training: Educate your team on the importance of ESI and the role they play in its management. Awareness can significantly reduce risks related to data breaches and non-compliance.
  • Leverage Technology for Data Security: Use encryption, access controls, and other security measures to protect ESI from unauthorized access and breaches.
  • Develop a Response Plan for Data Incidents and Legal Hold Requests: Be prepared for potential data breaches or legal hold requests by having a response plan that includes data preservation and analysis steps.

Best Practices for ESI Handling in an Investigation

The following is a brief list covering the basics, but it is not exhaustive.

  • Preserve the Original Data: Make forensic copies of all relevant ESI to preserve the original data's integrity. Use write-blocking tools to prevent any alterations to the original data during the collection process in physical extractions. Use hashing and trusted timestamps in logical, filesystem, and physical extractions to establish a record of what was originally extracted that can be validated later to demonstrate data has not been altered.
  • Maintain a Chain of Custody: Document every action taken with the ESI, including who accessed the data, when, and for what purpose. 
  • Use Specialized Tools: Employ forensic tools and software for ESI collection and analysis. These tools can accurately copy and analyze data without altering it.
  • Ensure Data Security: Protect the collected ESI with strong encryption and secure storage solutions. Limit access to the data to authorized personnel only to prevent unauthorized disclosure or tampering.
  • Understand Legal Requirements: Be aware of the legal requirements and regulations governing ESI in investigations, including privacy laws, search and seizure laws, and any industry-specific compliance requirements. Ensure all investigative actions comply with these regulations.
  • Engage Experts When Necessary: Consider engaging digital forensics experts if the investigation requires technical expertise beyond your team's capabilities. 
  • Document Everything: Thoroughly document every step of the ESI handling process, including the collection, analysis, and storage methods. This documentation can be critical in establishing the credibility of the investigation process.

The Future of ESI

With the debut of generative AI, the last few years have demonstrated that information technology trends are accelerating in every direction. As we plunge further into von Neuman's "technological singularity," the landscape of ESI destined for significant evolution. 

Machine Learning

Integrating artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technologies promises to revolutionize how we manage, analyze, and interpret ESI. These advancements will enable more efficient data processing by automating complex analysis and providing deeper insights from vast datasets.

A stylized illustration of a brain, potentially representing concepts such as intelligence, neural networks, or brainstorming

These innovations sound great. However, there's a potential dark side to AI in eDiscovery and ESI. The nature of neural networks and AI systems can produce machine-generated data that is opaque and challenging to decipher. This ambiguity raises concerns about the interpretability of data and decisions derived from AI. Understanding the data or decisions generated from these systems becomes complicated as some of these systems tend to literally hallucinate. Like human memory, this tendency could pose significant hurdles in legal contexts. Clarity and traceability of evidence in the context of ESI have become easy to take for granted; this luxury may not last much longer.

Crypto and the Rise of Web 3.0

Blockchain technology, integral to the emerging Web 3.0 landscape, is poised to significantly reshape ESI management. Its robust data integrity and security capabilities offer innovative methods for authenticating and preserving digital artifacts. 

Web 3.0 emphasizes decentralized networks and enhanced user control over data, representing a new challenge in data consolidation and preservation. Blockchain technology partially solves this problem by providing a zero-trust public ledger where ESI can be reconsolidated and authenticated.

Additionally, the surge in Internet of Things (IoT) devices, a hallmark of Web 3.0's interconnected digital ecosystem, will dramatically increase the types and volumes of ESI. This influx of machine-generated data from countless IoT devices into legal and corporate frameworks demands an updated approach to data management. It underscores the necessity for ESI systems that are scalable, flexible, and capable of harnessing the decentralized and user-centric nature of Web 3.0 technologies.


We've seen how ESI has grown from early computer data cases to being officially recognized in the law. It covers not just what we create but also what machines do on their own. The emergence of the term "artifacts" demonstrates how broad ESI can be, including all kinds of digital evidence.

Machine learning, blockchain, and Web 3.0 present new challenges and opportunities for eDiscovery and data governance. Better tools to deal with the influx are already emerging to balance the explosive growth in the quantity and diversity of data.

Understanding ESI is not just about grasping a term but also about recognizing the profound implications of all forms of digital data for our legal systems, business operations, and daily lives.

Photos by Manuel Geissinger on Pexels

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