The Daily Telegraph has highlighted the tricky issue of redaction. FOI Man reflects on the perhaps surprising difficulties of blanking out a bit of text.
Today’s Daily Telegraph features a story about redaction. And for a change, this is not a story complaining about public authorities redacting too much, but about them failing to do so properly.
The Departments for Health and Communities and Local Government, and the Ministry of Defence, are all alleged to have disclosed and published documents containing redactions. But unfortunately, it appears that the redactions were poorly done, and as a result, the material that should have remained secret can be read by requesters and others with very little effort on their part.
Redaction, for those who don’t speak FOI, is the term used to describe blanking out information in documents. It happens when public authorities are disclosing documents but there are particular words or passages that contain sensitive information and are therefore exempt. Rather than refusing to provide the whole document, public authorities will blank out the relevant sections.
It is a difficult process from start to finish. First of all, if the document (or documents) is very long, it can be time consuming (and this time often can’t be included in estimates of the cost). Secondly, as the Telegraph has highlighted, the practicalities of how to redact are not straightforward.
The Telegraph gives two examples of how redaction can go wrong. In the first, it appears that the Civil Servant responsible thought they had successfully blanked out the relevant sections using available software, but when the journalist studied the documents, it was a simple matter to highlight the relevant sections to see what had been supposedly hidden. In the second, rather more prosaic (and familiar) example, the text had been blanked out using a black marker pen, but when the document was held up against the light, again the information was magically revealed.
Another common difficulty occurs with Track Changes™ or similar functionality in office software (or more accurately, with staff understanding how it works). In a previous job, we purchased redaction software in an attempt to overcome these issues, only to find that it didn’t work properly (it tended to blank out more than the section you wanted to cover up).
In the end, less technical solutions tend to be the most effective. The standard one is to use a black marker pen to cover the relevant words, then photocopy the pages, possibly use the pen again on the photocopy, then photocopy the pages again, and so on until you (and usually half a dozen colleagues interrupted to double check it for you) are satisfied that the words or passage can’t be read.
My favoured solution, sometimes complemented by the one above, is to use cut up bits of Post-It ™ note or paper that can be otherwise secured, and place them over the relevant sections before photocopying the pages (taking care not to dislodge said bits of paper en route to the photocopier). You can even indicate the relevant exemptions on the paper covering each section. This is effective, and has the added benefit of making your desk look like the aftermath of a Blue Peter craft session. “And here’s a document I prepared earlier…”
So I feel for my colleagues in central Government. They will no doubt want to read up about redaction, so if they and you want to know more, both the Information Commissioner and the National Archives publish useful guidance for public authorities.
If you’re waiting for my post on exemptions and the public interest test, don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about it. I’ve just extended the deadline(!) and hope to publish it later this week.