Military’s Snafu Highlights PDF Redaction
By Robyn Weisman
On April 30, the U.S. military command in Baghdad posted a PDF in which confidential portions had been redacted—or so officials thought.
John Landwehr, group manager for Adobe Acrobat security solutions and strategy, had a good look at the document after the media got hold of the confidential information, which included names of soldiers manning Baghdad-area checkpoints, training procedures and other security items.
The U.S. military clearly did not understand what it was doing when it used the black highlighter function in a Microsoft Word document that it then converted into a PDF, Landwehr said. Readers could easily separate the black text from the black highlighter and read the classified text.
This matter has not only called attention to the increasing ubiquity of PDF, it also has underscored the importance of proper redaction tools for situations that call for them.
“To be fair, the Department of Defense’s first concern is not publishing documents. They are dealing with things that are much more stressful. But an incident like this creates a ripple effect, [so that] greater attention gets paid to the publishing and approval process and people see there is technology available to handle this,” Landwehr said.
Adobe does not offer a specific redaction tool in Acrobat, although it does offer other security measures, none of which the U. S. military used, Landwehr said. These features include digital signatures for accessing documents and the ability to “revoke” or turn off a PDF even after it has been downloaded, copied onto a USB token, burned onto a CD-ROM or backed up on optical tape.
But a huge market for PDF redaction tools exists, said Chris Swenson, director of software industry analysis at NPD Group. Although several specialized redaction tools exist, particularly for the lawyers and legal content management systems, the majority are expensive and work on TIFF images, the format generally used before PDF became prominent.
And, as Landwehr noted, one can make a printout, cover the classified portions with a black marker, and scan it back in as a PDF, but the downside is that a user is left with a much bigger file that cannot be edited.
More and more organizations have ditched TIFF for PDF because PDFs offer editable text as well as images. As a result, PDFs, unlike TIFFs, are capable of being compliant with a host of regulations and can handle redactions without sacrificing page integrity.
The best-known redaction product for PDF is Redax by the Lansdowne, Pa., company Appligent. Swenson said Redax, which comes in regular, light and server versions, is less expensive than options on other file formats and has the advantage of being a plug-in to the Acrobat platform.
“Because [Redax] is a plug-in, you don’t have to load it from each desktop, which is especially good if you have only limited IT resources,” Swenson said.
According to Appligent president Virginia Gavin, Redax came about while Appligent was developing solutions for the FDA (U. S. Food and Drug Administration) in 1996. The FDA had need for a redaction tool, and Adobe was not interested in developing one at that time.
“We were a niche within a niche, and so we sold our first version of Redax in December, 1996,” Gavin continued. “We’ve been in Adobe’s third-party developer partner program for many years, [and] in the government space we’re synergistic with Adobe.”
Gavin noted that more and more government agencies, including the National Archives, accept PDFs—and these agencies, which under the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) must provide access to documents, need to redact a host of items, anything from Social Security numbers to information about a minor.
“There’s a whole list of criteria that has to be taken into account. Before Redax, the legal community, for example, used 3M tape, grease pencils and exacto knives, and it was all very time-consuming—and then you still had to make copies. [Redax] works to streamline the redaction process wherever possible, without changing page integrity,”
Redax provides users with many ways in which to speed up the redaction process. Users may put together lists of key words or phrases to be removed or make up templates that flag text and images to be redacted. Users also may select text using Acrobat’s highlight, underline and crossout tools.
Moreover, Redax offers users industry-standard exemption codes and provides palettes for U.S. FOIA and Privacy Act codes and a choice of redaction characters, among other things. And users do not suffer the U.S. military’s recent fate because the redacted replacement file does not contain any of the original information.
Said Swenson: “Adobe doesn’t give away all the secret sauce, but has provided specs for PDF, enough to create [products like Redax] that fill a specific need.”
Copyright (c) 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.