Think that dishy E-mail sent to your colleague in confidence is history once the delete key is pressed? Well, think again: Computer gurus are finding ways to retrieve everything from mundane contracts to sensitive trade secrets from companies' hardware and software. And that's creating expensive litigation problems. "Electronic data is increasingly used as a weapon against companies," says John Jessen, founder of Seattle-based Electronic Evidence Discovery, which is working with lawyers on about 100 business lawsuits.
Since establishing EED six years ago, Jessen has uncovered incriminating E-mail files that led to a $250,000 settlement in a sexual discrimination suit. In another dispute, drafts of a contract were found containing a clause that EED's opponent in a case denied ever existed. More recently, EED was hired to find out whether a former employee of a client had stolen confidential records when he went to work for a competitor. Armed with a court order allowing them unlimited access, Jessen's snoops discovered 15,000 files that had been snatched.
How do they do it? In part by plugging recovered data into the library of 9,000 software programs amassed by EED. "No one [from EED] goes past a garage sale without looking for old software or hardware," says Jessen. It seems that computers, like elephants and spurned lovers, never