What is redacted?

Redacted, a fairly common practice in legal documents, refers to the process of editing a document to conceal or remove confidential information before it is disclosed or published.

Key points to remember

  • Redacted, a fairly common practice in legal documents, refers to the process of editing a document to conceal or remove confidential information before it is disclosed or published.
  • Removing personal data from documents is important to prevent identity theft.
  • Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5-2 requires documents filed in court to delete Social Security numbers, financial account numbers, names of minors, dates of birth and home addresses.
  • There are tools available in Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat to redact documents.

Understand redacted

With electronic filing of court documents now common practice, drafting is necessary to restrict public access to personal data, given the possibility of identity theft and other types of fraud.

In addition to personal data identifiers, other information that should be removed includes medical records, trade secrets, informant names, and security information. Lawyers have an obligation to protect the privacy of parties involved in litigation or other proceedings, and failure to do so may result in the court imposing sanctions or fines on them.

There are a large number of laws, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley law— which includes processes on how to handle private information.

Redacted process

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5-2 requires parties filing documents with the court (whether manual filing or electronic filing) to redact the following personal data identifiers:

  • Social security numbers: Only the last four digits should be included.
  • Financial account numbers: Only the last four digits should be used.
  • Names of minors: If the involvement of a minor must be mentioned, only the minor’s initials may be used.
  • Date of birth: If the date of birth must be included, use only the year of birth (not the month or day).
  • Home address: In criminal cases, if a home address must be included, use only the city and state.

Writing a paper document can be done by cutting out the text to be written or by using opaque tape to cover the written sections. Redacting electronic filings, however, is more complicated. The following methods may seem to redact a document, but in reality, they are neither effective nor foolproof:

  • Change text color to white. This may make the selected words to be redacted appear to be hidden, but the remaining metadata may reveal the hidden text.
  • Obfuscation with commenting tools: Changes made by these tools can be removed to reveal the underlying text.
  • Deleted words or sections: Metadata contains the document’s revision history and can be used to display deleted information.
  • Using dark tape or an opaque marker: Rather than physically removing sensitive information, it’s common to cover that information with dark tape or a marker and scan it into PDF format. However, many scanners are sensitive enough to see these hidden words even if they don’t seem to be visible.

Best practices would be to use the tools specifically designed for writing documents, available in Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat.

Concrete examples

There were some notable editorial failures. In June 2016, House Democrats released a set of digital documents related to investigations into the 2012 attacks on two US facilities in Benghazi, Libya. The Los Angeles Times found that portions of a redacted transcript featuring Hillary Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal could in fact be viewed if that section was copied from the PDF version and pasted into another document.

In 2011, the same cut-and-paste tactic was used to access redacted information about Apple’s business dealings that was mistakenly included in a US District Court notice.

In 2013, Citigroup admitted it had failed to protect sensitive data, including social security numbers and birthdates, of 146,000 customers who requested bankruptcy between 2007 and 2011, due to an issue with the way its software redacted customer data on bankruptcy filings for secured loans.

In 2019, drafting failures by lawyers representing former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort accidentally revealed ties to Russian businessmen, a claim he had previously denied.

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