Four Common Mistakes People Make with Redacted Electronic Files

Written by Christi Hayes and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

Electronic filing of documents in federal courts has been in place for several years. An issue that frequently arises has to do with protecting personal data, such as Social Security numbers, bank and financial account numbers, and dates of birth, when that information appears in the documents being filed. Filing redacted documents is the recommended solution, but care must be taken to avoid common errors people make with redacted information.

Common mistakes made with redacted documents

There are four errors that people make when trying to provide redacted files and documents for filing in federal cases. One of the reasons parties and their attorneys might be having problems is their failure to understand the process of redacting information from a document. There is a correct method to use to produce redacted documents to avoid these four common mistakes:

  •  Forgetting about metadata: Electronic documents produced on the most popular word-processing programs contain hidden code that is also referred to as "metadata." Metadata can be accessed to disclose everything that was contained in the document even if it was deleted or edited. Redacting information by deleting it or changing it and saving the document does not remove the metadata. Removal requires that you go through a purging procedure before distributing the redacted document or file. Most word-processing programs have such a procedure. For users of Microsoft Word, the method is through the program's Document Inspector. 
  • Changing font color to white: Changing the color of the font you are using might make the text disappear on your screen, but the information is still there and can be accessed. 
  • Blacking-out text: Adobe Acrobat offers users a tool to cover over sections of text. Although it gives the impression that the text has been redacted, someone reviewing the document can undo your attempt at redacting and see the text. 
  • Covering parts of documents with tape or paper before scanning: Covering redacted parts of a document with paper or nontransparent tape before copying or scanning the document might not prevent the data from being seen. The data might still show through the paper or tape and be visible to anyone looking at the document. 

Avoiding problems with redacted word-processing files   

Preventing hidden code from being saved in a document is the best way to avoid problems with a redacted document. Programs that use the simple-text format do not allow metadata. Microsoft Notepad is a simple-text format program. If you do not want to use Notepad to create your document, you can use Word or another word-processing program to create it and then follow the following steps: 

  • Locate and replace the text you want to remove with "[REDACTED]" and save the document.
  • Copy the newly redacted document and paste it into a simple-text program such as Notepad. Save this redacted version of the document.
  • Open the redacted version in Word or in whatever word-processing program you are using, and convert it into a PDF file for filing with the court.   

Protecting personal information when filing documents with the court is important, but taking a few minutes to ensure that the method you are using to create redacted documents is, in fact, preventing others from seeing your personal data.

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