July 2011 | Time Management Tips & Technology
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Redaction in a Digital World

By Rick Borstein


Redaction, when used properly, is used to prevent the inadvertent disclosure of privileged or otherwise confidential or sensitive information. Redaction is the permanent removal of visible text and images from documents. In the past, a black marker was used to hide sensitive content. That process was slow, expensive, and inefficient. Today, thankfully, there is technology that enables users to safely and permanently remove content from a digital document.

The very word, redaction, makes many lawyers cringe—and for good reason. There are several horror stories of improper redaction that have caused significant embarrassment (and worse). Improper redaction most often occurs when text or images are covered up instead of being completely purged from the document. For example, a TSA employee failed to properly redact a 93-page operating manual, which was posted on a government-procurement website, where users could copy data that appeared to be blacked out and simply paste it into another document, thus revealing the information that should have been redacted.

Improper redactions also led to the disclosure of sensitive bankruptcy data by HSBC Bank. Writing about the HSBC Bank incident, NetworkWorld magazine explained that, "Legal documents are increasingly being filed online, causing some problems as company employees get used to the new formats. Information on paper copies can be redacted with a marker pen, but electronic redaction, if not done properly, can be reversed with a simple cut-and-paste."

So how can legal professionals avoid redaction mistakes and be confident that sensitive data has been sufficiently extracted from the document? Effective redaction is easy with the right software, resources, and advice. Adobe Acrobat Pro, beginning in version 8, enables legal professionals to redact confidential and sensitive information the right way.

I recently wrote a guide to using the redaction tool in Acrobat X (the software's latest version), intended specifically for the legal user. The tool is powerful with numerous features. To really take full advantage of the tool, you need to be aware of and familiar with as many of these features as possible.

Regardless of familiarity with Acrobat's redaction tool, you can make the process less painful if you keep in mind the following:

  • Do not forget to apply redactions using the redaction tool. There is no such thing as a "rough equivalent." Simply covering up text and graphics will black rectangles is not redaction. It is, however, a recipe for disaster.
  • Consider using Acrobat X Actions to streamline the process. Actions are similar to macros, which can be easily programmed to run an infinite variety of tasks automatically. For example, you can use Actions to prompt users to manually redact pages or remind users to make sure they've applied the redactions before saving the document.
  • A few other tips to make your next redaction as easy and accurate as possible:
    Carefully review PDFs created from scanned copies of paper documents. OCR is not a fool-proof process and the Search and Redact feature finds text only in searchable documents;
  • Review all documents prior to submission. A two-person review team is far more effective than a review by just one person.
  • Know the local rules regarding redaction. Some courts and judges require or prefer that certain information be redacted even if not required by statute or code.
  • Always use the Examine Document feature before finalizing the redacted document. This feature enables users to easily determine what metadata and hidden text still resides in the PDF. Once detected, any unwanted information can be easily removed.

Bottom line, redaction can work in the digital world when done correctly and carefully, saving you from potential embarrassment, ethical issues, or worse.


About the Author

Rick Borstein is Business Development Manager for Desktop Products for Adobe Systems Incorporated. To read more about PDF and the legal community, check out Rick's blog, http://blogs.adobe.com/acrolaw/ or follow him on Twitter, @acrolaw.

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