Software helps tidy up FOIA responses

If you're not in the market for redaction software, you might be soon.


Never heard of it? Is it just more jargon thought up by information technology vendors?
No, Congress invented the concept of redaction to safeguard sensitive information in
official government documents while allowing the public to see them.


The Electronic Freedom of Information Act of 1996 requires agencies to put their
frequently requested documents into an electronic reading rooms after removing any
personal or sensitive information.


Redaction is the process of removing things such as national security or law
enforcement information, proprietary business data and personal information.


If you never have to respond to public requests for information, redaction is not a
concern for you. But if citizens ever contact you and ask for documents via postal mail,
e-mail or the World Wide Web, pay close attention. A single mistake could cause you, your
agency and your customers much grief.


In this litigious society, violations of citizens' privacy or the unauthorized release
of confidential data can quickly land you in court.


Before the electronic age, FOIA officers would photocopy an original document,
obliterate privileged information with a black marker or white tape, and make the required
explanations in the margin. Then it was back to the copy machine to make a copy for the
requester.


If the requester is referred to in the document, the requester's personal information
is not removed, but if the document goes to a third party, personal information is
redacted.


When a document is in electronic format, it's a hassle to print it, mark it up once or
twice, then scan it back into electronic form. Redaction software lets the FOIA officer
remove sensitive portions electronically.


Maybe you're thinking, what's the big deal? Every modern word processor can cut and
paste. The problem is that not all word processors completely erase the deleted text.
Codes can be used to skip over it when displayed or printed.


A quick save in Microsoft Word makes an addendum to the file without obliterating the
deleted information. The Microsoft Windows Notepad still holds deleted text for an
enterprising snooper to find.


Other word processors behave in similar ways, so total removal of the redacted text
demands a complete save.


If you're responsible for redaction, you want to leave a document as close to its
original state as the law permits. Any deletions you make must be annotated with the
length and reason for redaction. Obviously, life would be easier if everyone concerned
uses the same word processor.


Another issue is margin notations, which become an intrinsic part of the official
record for a decision or action. Notes may hold sensitive information that must be
redacted by complex polygons, not simple rectangles.


If a document is electronic, margin notations are unlikely to be a concern. We don't
discuss margin note redaction in this tutorial, but you should consider it for paper FOIA
processes.


Most agencies generate documents in a variety of word processing, image and spreadsheet
formats. It's difficult to redact a document in an unfamiliar format with confidence that
changes are indelible and clearly annotated, then to post the results on a Web server,
where the world will know if you goofed.


Documents often have electronic sticky notes, hypertext links to other documents,
embedded objects and other wizardry. Substantial technical skill is necessary to detect
and manipulate these features--one reason for FOIA officers' anxiety about putting
information on the Internet.


Decentralized FOIA operations present even more challenges. If a document is
electronic, how do you vouch for its authenticity? How do you prove the proper officials
reviewed and certified it for release? E-mail systems generally can't give such
assurances.


Where requests for agency documents are handled centrally, there may be special
document and image processing systems to deal with such questions. Otherwise, you'll have
to answer them locally.


Electronic FOIA has made redaction more complicated, and agency lawyers and your
management may not be sympathetic to your plight. The law is the law. Your agency must
comply within two weeks with no extra money or personnel.


We examined six software packages that could help you meet the challenges of redacting
electronic documents. We asked three questions: Are they up to the task? Are they easy to
install and use? Are they reasonably priced?


To comply with the law in decentralized FOIA environments, the software must do three
things:


Though not required by law, other features are valuable in managing redaction:


Image Viewer from Imagine Software Inc. of Silver Spring, Md., is $99 but is not
capable of Electronic FOIA redaction. It cannot permanently add redactions to exported
images without a special plug-in. Although it has several annotation features, only the
red rectangle feature is suitable for redaction.


This Microsoft Windows 95 and Windows NT package can open .tif, .gif, .jpeg and .pcx
files and can export .tif. files. An optical character recognition option allows saving in
text format. The user can open only one image at a time, so if a document is saved as one
image per page, you must go through it one page at a time to redact.


Imaging for Windows with TextBridge, from Eastman Software Inc. of Billerica, Mass.,
comes in standard and professional editions for Win95 and NT. The Imaging Professional
version can save data as Hypertext Markup Language, .bmp, .awd and .tiffiles. Optically
recognized images can be saved as text.


Imaging Professional reads .awd, .bmp, .dcx,.gif, .jpeg, .pcx, .tif, .wif and .xif
files as well as images stored on servers running Wang Open/image 1.x and 3.x.


Imaging Professional can combine images to create multipage image documents.


It can reorder pages in the thumbnail view, drag and drop thumbnails, and change page
size. It can annotate with a highlighter, sticky note, solid and transparent boxes, or a
customizable rubber stamp.


Rubber stamps can supply explanations and identify the redactor and the date.


Imaging Professional is $98 or $790 for a 10-pack. The standard version, which has many
of the same features, is downloadable free at http://www.eastmansoftware.com/imaging/instal95.htm.


Word DOT Redactor shareware, developed by Veterans Affairs Department staff, is a
Microsoft Word document template (DOT) for Word 7.0 and 8.0. Experienced Word users will
find DOT files relatively easy to set up, use and modify.


To redact a passage, highlight the text to be redacted and press the Word DOT Redactor
button with the reason for redaction on it. Word DOT Redactor has annotation language
specific to VA needs, but Word gurus could easily adapt it to their agencies' terminology.


Word DOT Redactor works only on text portions of files and cannot edit embedded
graphics. It carries no warranties or guarantees. VA does not support it, and no technical
assistance is provided. Visit the Web site at http://www.va.gov/foia/redactor.


Pagis Pro from Xerox Desktop Document System Division of Peabody, Mass., is a solid,
$99 program but cannot export redactions permanently.


This Win95 and NT package can import and export .xif, .tif, .pcx, .jpeg, .bmp, .dcx and
.gif, but it cannot export annotations except as .xif and they are not permanent. The only
annotation tool suitable for redaction is the line tool, and then only if the line is made
as thick as possible.


Redax from Digital Applications Inc. of Aldan, Pa., was not released in time for
testing. Company officials said it redacts documents in Adobe Systems Inc.'s Portable
Document Format.


This isn't quite a standard, but it is in the public domain. .pdf readers are
downloadable free from the Adobe Web site at http://www.adobe.com/.


Version 1 of Redax runs on Apple Macintosh and all Windows platforms. It redacts only
text and will be $169 per copy. Version 2 for text and images will be $269. If you work
with .pdf files, this looks like a good option.


Of these six programs, four can import a variety of formats, redact and export graphics
or hard copy. The two programs that focus on .pdf and Word files could be valuable to FOIA
officers who deal primarily with files in those formats.


Eastman Software's Imaging for Windows is free, easy to use and has all the options a
FOIA officer needs. The professional edition has some nice features.


Imagine's Image Viewer has several flaws that make it unusable for Electronic FOIA
purposes. It is harder to use and has fewer features than the Eastman Software
application, and it cannot export annotations.


We looked at other packages that offer redaction features but did not try those in
which redaction is just one component of document flow. Such complete packages cost as
much as $1,000 and would be inappropriate to buy solely for redaction.


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. Jason Hart is a webmaster and analyst at
American Management Technologies Inc. in Washington.


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