Do you know what 'e-discovery' is? A website connected to an educational television programme is a good guess but, sadly, is far from correct. According to research firm Gartner, electronic discovery is 'the collection, preparation, review and distribution of electronically stored information associated with administrative, regulatory, litigation and other government proceedings'. And it often isn't pretty: according to a survey by the research firm Jurinnov, 88 per cent of British executives said they would rather go through a root canal procedure than an e-discovery one. In recent years, e-discovery has become the standard component of civil and corporate litigation, fostered by a growing awareness among legal authorities that most compelling evidence today is in digital form. On the whole, Asia is not as litigious as North America and Europe, but the world is changing fast. The legal exchange of digital information could be more daunting in this region. Without the right approach and technology in place, e-discovery can be an expensive and time-consuming experience for a company, compelling corporate chieftains to spend time with two groups of people they'd prefer to see as infrequently as possible: lawyers and information technology (IT) administrators. In the US court system, the onus of e-discovery took on new weight on December 1, 2006, when amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure took effect. The amendments introduced the phrase 'electronically stored information', which, for the purposes of the discovery process, covers all current types of computer- based information. With the volume of electronic data continuing to multiply - thanks to the digital footprint left by users of the internet, social networks, e-mail, digital cameras, mobile phones, digital television and credit cards, and the growth of surveillance camera footage and databases - the cost and complexity of e-discovery are rising. Technology analyst firm International Data Corp estimates the amount of information in the 'digital universe' last year was equal to almost 45 gigabytes for every person on Earth - the capacity of more than 17 billion, 8GB iPhone handsets. In many instances, skyrocketing e-discovery costs force organisations to prematurely settle cases or, at a minimum, compromise their litigation strategy. 'That is why many large companies are implementing systemised in-house processes for collecting and processing e-mail and other electronic documents that may need to be disclosed for litigation or in response to regulatory investigations,' says Patrick Burke, assistant general counsel at US firm Guidance Software, a supplier of digital investigative systems. A small Hong Kong company that regularly backs up its data might think e-discovery is nothing to fear. But what happens when its business partner - for example, an American company - is sued by an enterprise based in Japan and the local firm is told to hand over all relevant data about a certain project in dispute? The firm must then ask: has it properly organised backup data, or simply copied it to tape or disc? If it has to provide the data in court - within 72 hours, in the US - could it meet the deadline and guarantee nothing had been tampered with? John O'Brien, a partner at knowledge-management consultancy IRM Strategies in Hong Kong, says backing up data for recovery purposes is not the same thing as good record-keeping. If a company finds itself in the hot seat of e-discovery, it could be terribly expensive to have to search for the relevant information. 'It may make sense to backup data chronologically ... but these backups provide no organisation of data according to defined business value,' says O'Brien, who served for several years as the Hong Kong government's records service director and principal archivist. Richard Kershaw, vice-president at Hong Kong-based Hill & Associates, one of the world's leading independent security consultancies, says: 'If you are subject to a civil litigation, and don't identify all the sources of data a court might deem relevant, and your IT department deletes the data through routine and otherwise legitimate housekeeping, a US court will see this as failure to comply with the need to preserve. 'Computer forensics consultants can help by working with the attorney to identify relevant types of information then determine where they might digitally exist, and figure out the best way to preserve that data without undue impact to the organisation,' says Kershaw. Independent consultant Robert Neely, formerly research director at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, says: 'The world of law operates on precedents, which can effectively tie the courts' hands and result in decisions that are nonsensical in the face of new technology. Problems are compounded by technical people not understanding basic legal concepts, and courts not understanding basic computing concepts.' O'Brien points out that e-discovery implies that the process can be handled through automated systems. 'But rarely does all of the activity of a business take place in only one media,' he says. 'Paper forms, handwritten meeting notes, e-mails, memory sticks, photographic prints, text messages, Web 2.0 applications and blueprints may all exist relative to a single case.' So, are Hong Kong companies ready for the demands of e-discovery? Peter Bullock, a partner at law firm Pinsent Masons, believes most are not up to the challenge, but neither are many other organisations across the world. 'This [readiness] is a part of good corporate governance plus sensible policy-setting on projects and desktop management, but most firms don't make a very good - or consistent - job of it.' Allan Hickey, operations director at CIO Connect, an international support organisation for chief information officers, explains that the challenge for its members is how to respond effectively to e-discovery with minimal disruption to business. 'This has IT systems, document management policy and organisational cultural implications - and costs money to implement,' says Hickey. Most people see a dentist for a root canal treatment because they failed to prevent a tooth from getting infected. Those who ignore the implications of e-discovery risk more than a painful toothache. Additional reporting by Bien Perez.