Déjà vu: Do Redaction Right

woman dropped fail failure

Another day, another redaction failure. When a document is redacted it often piques the interest of people because the natural question is “what am I not seeing?”. In court filings, the purpose of redaction is to protect sensitive information, such as social security numbers or the names of minors. In other instances, such as an FOIA request, information is redacted to protect personal privacy or national security. An improperly redacted document does not protect sensitive information, which is revealed with little effort. For instance, click here to view a “redacted” document. Select all the text, copy it, and paste it into a new document. Voila, due to improper redaction all the information is readily available. So, how do you apply redaction correctly?

What’s the Problem?

Headlines over the years have called attention to failed redaction efforts, which can result in the exposure of potential malfeasance or result in disciplinary action. In regard to the most recent headline involving failed redaction in a court filing submitted by Jones Day, notable legal technology author Bob Ambrogi wrote a funny, but scathing, piece outlining how redaction can go wrong.  In most software that provides a redaction function, redaction is a multi-step process and requires that the text or images are marked for redaction, then the redaction is applied, and then the document is saved as a new document so the original is not over-written. For good measure, metadata should also be removed from the document. Failure to take these steps and use a product designed for redaction can result in a file that looks redacted but isn’t.

How does this happen? It is likely that someone drew a black text box over the words they wanted to redact in a Word document and then either converted or printed the document to PDF. Or simply drew black boxes over text in a PDF document and saved it. Because of how a PDF is designed it has “layers”, which means that the text underneath the boxes is still there. The text must be digitally or physically removed to be redacted.

Redaction Options

There are old school methods of redaction, such as making a copy of a document, printing each page single-sided, placing the page on a surface and using a blade to literally cut out the text. Then apply opaque tape to the redacted sections and scan the document. There are also special redaction markers so that you can print a document and hand draw the black boxes and scan it back to a digital file. Not all pens are made equal so it is important to be aware that documents marked up by hand can reveal information if the proper type of ink is not used.

It is also possible to draw the black boxes over text in a word processing document or PDF, print the document, and scan it to create a new digital image file. While this works, image files are larger files and may be problematic for file size limitations in efiling systems, nor are they searchable.

It is inadvisable to use any of the above methods considering that they require excessive amounts of time, generate a paper trail and there are plenty of options to redact a file that in all likelihood was generated digitally originally.

The best method is to use software to redact a digital file, as it is easier and completely effective if it is done correctly. In addition to Adobe Acrobat, there are many applications available that will securely redact a digital document. If you need to redact a document in its native format of Microsoft Word or Excel there are products like Payne’s Redact Assistant ($60 for a single license). For Mac users, there is Kofax Power PDF Standard for Mac or PDFelement. Corel WordPerfect Office Professional has built-in redaction features. Alternatives to Adobe Acrobat for Windows users include the Nitro Productivity Suite ($159 per license) and Kofax Power PDF Advanced f/k/a Nuance ($179 per license),

How to Redact in Adobe Acrobat

Adobe Acrobat Pro DC ($15 per user per month for Mac or PC) and Adobe Acrobat Pro 2017 ($449 per license for Mac or PC) are the products currently supported by Adobe that provide deep functionality and are the de facto standard in many law offices. Instructions for redacting in Acrobat Pro require that the text or images are marked for redaction and that the redaction is then applied. The redaction is only applied once it has been saved as a new document so as not to overwrite the original. Many other redaction tools do not prompt the user to save the file as a new document, so this feature in Acrobat may alone be worth the price of admission. Adobe Acrobat Pro also prompts the user to remove metadata from the file during this process.

Adobe Acrobat Pro and other software provide tools to search a document or set of documents for keywords to be redacted. They also provide pattern matching options to look for phone numbers, social security numbers, email addresses and more across a document or set of documents. While this feature is very handy and can speed up the time spent redacting documents, be aware that the tools are imperfect. If a word is misspelled or if a social security number lacks a hyphen then the automation fails to find and mark the text for redaction. If you are using search or pattern matching across a large set of documents the search will not include any secured (encrypted) PDFs in the set. There is no substitute for a person to review each document to ensure that all content is properly marked for redaction and that the redaction is applied.

No Free Lunch

A quick search of the internet reveals many free redaction services. However, most of these require the user to upload the file to the cloud. Without a thorough examination of the terms of service, privacy policies, and storage retention of your files these services should likely be avoided due to the sensitive and confidential nature of legal documents – especially those that need redacting!


Improperly redacting a file can lead to embarrassment, discipline, fines and other unpleasant consequences. Redaction tools, used correctly, can eliminate these potential landmines. Learn how to use the tools that you have and don’t be the next headline.

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