The Volokh Conspiracy

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Avoid Super-Embarrassing Redaction Failures

A Public Service Announcement, especially for the lawyers among our readers.


In the last several weeks, I ran across two documents written by lawyers that looked redacted—but all the supposedly secret information in them could be extracted with literally three keystrokes (ctrl-A, ctrl-C, ctrl-shift-V). One was a court filing that was filed pursuant to a court order authorizing the redaction; but the material so carefully marked secret proved not to be secret at all. Ugh.

For at least one of the documents, I know what improper redaction mechanism was used: The lawyer used Google Docs to highlight passages using black highlighter, and then saved the document as a PDF. That looked blacked out on the screen; but the underlying text still remained in the PDF document—as far as the software was concerned, the text wasn't removed but was just set in a different color.

By clicking ctrl-A in PDF, I selected the whole document. By clicking ctrl-C, I copied all the text to the clipboard. And then by clicking ctrl-shift-V in another app, I pasted it with all the formatting, including the highlighting, removed. (Ctrl-V in Word works, too, if I select the Keep Text Only paste option.) The text was then completely visible.

To the best of my knowledge, Adobe Acrobat Pro redaction actually deletes the underlying text, if you mark the text for redaction and then apply the redactions. I'm sure there is other software available to do this, including free software. Just make sure that whatever you do, the redaction is actually complete.

Of course, the most reliable redaction mechanism is still printing, blacking out the material completely, and then scanning it back into a new file. But this option won't work for court filings in the many courts that require full-text-searchable PDFs generated directly from the computer, rather than from a scanner.

UPDATE: Commenter anorlunda explains the problem well:

Users are trained WYSIWYG. What you see is what you get. That's brilliant marketing, but when you make black text on a black background, what you see is nothing, but what you get is something else. So redaction contradicts our training.