Disclosing information requested under the Freedom of Information Act or state open records laws is already a tricky business. The use of improper redaction techniques now makes it incredibly risky, too.
Agency personnel struggle to find the perfect balance between the public’s right to know about the inner workings of their government versus the need to protect private and exempt information. Federal agencies are directed to place an “emphasis on the fullest responsible disclosure.” Because they are directed to “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure,” FOIA personnel increasingly rely on using redaction to protect sensitive information rather than exempt documents in full.
Unfortunately, they simultaneously raise the risk for the inadvertent disclosure of sensitive information when they:
Covering text with black boxes is grossly insufficient today. This was on vivid display when reporters recently uncovered confidential information in the Manafort case simply by copying and pasting redacted paragraphs into a new document.
Proper redaction requires the complete removal of sensitive information from records. It is achieved most reliably through the use of modern technology that accurately pinpoints exempt information and properly redacts and thoroughly sanitizes records.
In 2017, in a serious overabundance of caution, the FBI redacted the names of DC comic book characters to maintain their privacy in a public records disclosure.
It’s an amusing story – but redacting too much information can lead to expensive problems. Requesters are not shy about taking their complaints to court to get at the information behind the black boxes, and cases like this one only help prove their points. FOIA litigation reached record highs in 2018, as requesters sought to reveal more information about unethical conduct by government officials, the Russia investigation, immigration, the environment, and other issues.
With the tools currently available, the days of manually redacting documents with redaction tape (never entirely trustworthy anyway) or a black marker should be long gone. Unfortunately, many agencies still tackle redactions manually. But today, way too many records must be plowed through, and humans can barely scratch the surface before accuracy suffers. Plus, no tape or marker will scrub the metadata from electronic records, which can reveal everything contained in a file – even deleted text.
Over the years, agency personnel have developed redaction methods such as using software tools to apply black boxes or a series of X’s over text or to change the font to white. The results may look good on the surface. But the redactions fail spectacularly at protecting sensitive information.
Examples like these will continue to crowd the headlines as more people become aware of the ease of accessing improperly redacted information.
There’s really only one way to tackle this digital age challenge for an industrial age process: Use modern technology to streamline an otherwise error-prone task and deliver efficient, consistent, and reliable redactions. When armed with the right technology, FOIA personnel can:
Redaction is a critical and costly aspect of the document disclosure process – even more so when your agency must deal with the consequences of not doing it correctly. Having the right technology, such as that used for eDiscovery, arms personnel with search, analytics, and automation tools to redact with ease and confidence when making public records disclosures.
For a detailed demonstration of just how well eDiscovery technology helps U.S. cities and counties respond more efficiently to public records requests, please watch the recording of the webinar Get it out, get it right!. See how you too can take the risk out of redaction and finally achieve the right balance in meeting FOIA demands.