Video: Defeating redactions on poorly redacted documents


If you’re like me and frequently deal with requesting public records, then you’ll be accustomed to receiving documents that have blocks of text redacted.

Redactions are most often used by government officials to apply exemptions to the various federal and state public records law. Often, they’ll be used to obscure information that may breach confidentiality protections or needlessly harm the personal privacy of individuals. In other instances, redactions are somtimes abused to keep the lid on politically damaging revelations.

Not all redactions are created equal. In most cases, public entities are able to suitably redact documents either using computer-based solutions or with a good old fashioned black marker and copy machine.

Sometimes public entities get it wrong and end up using programs such as Microsoft Office or other basic editors that weren’t designed with permanently removing redacted information in mind, which allows the digitial files to be edited to reveal the information that was intended to be kept hidden.

In Flordia, a newspaper recently took a document that was publicly posted on an official websited and used computer software to remove the redactions and report on the confidential information contained in the publicly available report regarding Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz.

A Florida judge who presided over public records litigation concerning the original release of the report quickly blasted the newspaper, and demonstrated technical ignorance with regard to how the details were obtained by the newspaper’s reporters. School board lawyers attempted to frame the publication of the information as a violation of a previous court order.

Video of the judge’s remarks was quickly posted to social media, where it circulated:

In my own video embedded above in this blog post, I use one of my own past public records requests to demonstrate how removing redactions and accessing hidden material is possible when public officials improperly attempt to redact information. The video shows the end result of me using Adobe Acrobat to delete the black boxes of text used to “redact” information from email logs provided in response to a 2017 public records request from a New Jersey school district.

While these instances are not common, journalists owe it to themselves to double check the documents that they receive in response to their public records requests, as sometimes the mistakes of government agencies may work to the benefit of your story.

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Gavin Rozzi
Gavin Rozzi
Pushing the boundaries of data, technology & public policy

Gavin Rozzi is a data scientist from New Jersey with expertise in leveraging public sector datasets, spatial data & mapping and emerging technologies to inform public policy development.

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