Why use technology for redaction?
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.
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.
How do I efficiently redact?
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, with too many records to be plowed through, 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 these redactions fail spectacularly at protecting sensitive 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:
- Quickly and accurately find sensitive information. Data analytics classify information according to pre-defined exemption codes. Using powerful search capabilities, reviewers quickly and accurately find all exempt information. The exemption reasons are also tracked and instantly available for reporting.
- Easily redact everything at once. Mass or bulk redaction of information combines redacting with search so that multiple occurrences of a word, phrase or patterns such as social security or credit card numbers are redacted all at once.
- Balance caution and transparency. FOIA personnel use technology to work together to verify redacted content prior to release and flag documents that may require a second look. Reviewers can quickly locate all documents where redactions are made and create redaction reports, Vaughn indexes, and audit histories of when information was redacted and by whom.
- Make redactions correctly. Most importantly, sensitive information is permanently stripped completely from the disclosed document, not just covered up. Metadata is also removed to ensure thorough sanitization.
Efficient redaction practices: The use of black vs white color
In color psychology, black stands for 'inaccessible and cold', while white color is more associated with 'clarity and neutrality'. Within the legal industry, ‘blacklining’ is a fully established verb, when referring to anonymizing or protecting personal data.
That said, one can claim that disclosing countless document pages all fully redacted in black ink creates the image of information being hidden. Instead, a better way to do it would be by using white blocks with black borders which would also embody the law article as the ground for refusal. Various organizations have now agreed to use this redaction method as standard, mainly because it provides better clarity and appears much friendlier to the recipient’s eye.
When dealing with a large number of documents, redacting becomes a very daunting and time-consuming task, prone to errors. This is where modern technology can make a difference.
Nowadays, AI-powered eDiscovery tools allow legal professionals to replace the rejected pages with one single page as well as indicate why they are outside the request and/or have been refused. This really improves the standard redaction process experience while also meeting the legal requirements because it is clear where every page has been refused. Plus, opting for such a software saves a lot of ink and paper in the long run, which makes this approach a much friendlier one both for the recipient and for the environment.
Take the risk out of redaction
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.