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August 2008

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Out of Sight, But Not Gone

To protect the privacy of litigants, the Federal Rules of Practice and Procedure require that certain personal data identifiers be modified or partially redacted from federal court case files. These identifiers are Social Security numbers, dates of birth, financial account numbers, and names of minor children, and in criminal cases, also home addresses.

In all cases, it is the responsibility of the attorney and the parties in the case to redact personal identifiers.

But redaction, once a matter of drawing a heavy black line through the words on paper, has changed with the electronic filing of documents. A black bar drawn over the text is no longer enough to block it from view. In an electronic file, the obscured text still lurks beneath the highlighter box and can be readily recalled. The text is hidden, not excised.

Attorneys filing pleadings recently in a Connecticut case learned that lesson the hard way. They created black boxes to cover text they wished to redact. Unfortunately, simply pasting the text into a Word file revealed the hidden information. Changing the text color to white so it disappears against the white screen/paper is similarly ineffective.

To redact text, its metadata—literally the information about the data—must be removed. For best results, delete the text from the file before creating a PDF file and save it with a new name. Commercial software designed specifically to redact is also available.

If you’re tempted to redact text from an existing PDF file, be warned that some experts now advise against it. By using a text editor, the original unmodified text may still be recovered.

Many courts, such as the District of Arizona and the Northern District of California, have posted information to their websites on effective redaction techniques. For a look at their tips, visit their websites at: https://ecf.cand.uscourts.gov/cand/faq/tips/redacting.htm or http://www.azd.uscourts.gov/azd/cm-ecf.nsf/docview/files/$file/redaction.pdf