“Electronic Redaction Doesn’t Always Hide What It’s Supposed To”

Do paralegals & attorneys in this electronic document age need more instruction about keeping info confidential?

"With the issue of intentional government leaks of classified information frequently in the news, the problem of unintentional leaks of classified and sensitive information is frequently overlooked. The examples are numerous and startling.

"Last year, U.S. military commanders in Iraq released a long-awaited report of the American investigation into the fatal shooting of an Italian agent escorting a freed hostage through a security checkpoint. In order to give the classified report the widest possible distribution, officials posted the document on the military’s ‘Multinational Force-Iraq’ Web site in Adobe’s portable document format, or PDF. The report was heavily redacted, with sections obscured by black boxes.

"Within hours, however, readers in the blogosphere had discovered that the classified information would appear if the text was copied and pasted into Microsoft Word or any other word-processing program. Stars and Stripes, the Department of Defense newspaper, noted that the classified sections of the report covered ‘the securing of checkpoints, as well as specifics concerning how soldiers manned the checkpoint where the Italian intelligence officer was killed. In the past, Pentagon officials have repeatedly refused to discuss such details, citing security concerns.’ Soon after, the report was removed from the Web site.

"Copies of the improperly redacted report, however, live on. We at the consulting firm of Stroz Friedberg, too, were able to remove the redaction and save the clear text in a Word document. Forensic examiners in our office found that the document had been produced directly from Microsoft Word using Adobe Acrobat 6.0’s PDFMaker. The redacted text simply had been highlighted in black. As a result, to reveal the classified information, the steps are simple: Highlight the text with the ‘select text’ button on the PDF toolbar, copy the text by typing ‘control C,’ open a new document in a word-processing program and paste the text into the new document.


"Paralegals, attorneys and anyone else who works with privileged and classified information, must understand the technology that they are using before it is deployed. Thus, law firms, corporations, government agencies and the military all must implement best practices for redacting sensitive data from electronic documents. This is not a matter of simply purchasing software designed for redaction, installing it on some machines and training a few people.

"A law firm’s managers must understand what tradeoffs they are making in terms of the wider dissemination of information at the cost of security. The firm’s IT group must ensure that the proper checks are in place and that they work to protect sensitive information. Finally, paralegals and other professionals who review and redact information must understand the steps they must take to protect the information in the appropriate forms.

"Until then, law firms and other organizations that deal with the redaction of sensitive information should strongly consider returning to the days of the black marker [PDF link]and the TIFF. The TIFF is certainly not as consumer friendly as Adobe’s format, and it is not the latest technology, but at least it is secure."