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How a Simple Copy/Paste Revealed Explosive New Detail in Manafort’s Case

Redacted court documents keep getting unredacted because of simple, relatively easy to avoid errors. Here’s how to better redact PDFs.

by Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai
Jan 9 2019, 5:54pm

Image: Shutterstock

The lawyers involved in the case of tax fraud convict, lobbyist for dictators, and Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort started off the year on the wrong foot, and perhaps realized that yes, computers are hard.

On Tuesday, Manafort lawyers filed a response to special counsel Robert Mueller’s team’s allegation that Manafort lied to prosecutors. On page five, either Manafort’s lawyers or the Department of Justice staffers attempted to redact a sensitive passage. Unfortunately, just by copying and pasting the redacted paragraph, it was possible to read the blacked-out parts and find out new details of Manafort’s relationship with Konstantin Kilimnik, a former associate with ties to Russia. Mistakes like these have happened before, even to Facebook’s lawyers.

The slip-up prompted a very basic question: How does someone manage to mess up redacting such an important passage in one of the highest profile court cases in the world?

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Manafort’s lawyers did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment, but we spoke to some tech-savvy lawyers who told us how failed redactions often happen, and how not to make the same dumb mistakes.

There’s countless ways to redact or black out text, depending on what software or what operating system you like to use. For example, on macOS, you can draw black boxes on top of PDFs using the Preview app. Unfortunately, as New York City-based attorney Alexander Urbelis told me, if you don’t “flatten” the PDF after adding the boxes, the recipient can move them around—or highlight and copy paste—and reveal the redactions when the file is opened in Preview or other PDF readers. (Flattening basically means integrating added elements into the PDF so they became part of it.)

“That is how mistakes are made,” Urbelis said in an online chat.

We don’t know if that’s how the redaction in the Manafort case happened, but it’s a plausible explanation. (We tested the method on preview and, in fact, the redaction doesn’t actually work.)

Another possibility is that they made an even dumber mistake.

“It happens all the time, but usually people catch them. Basically if you redact in word (changing background color to black but not removing the text) then save it as either a docx or pdf,” a lawyer who works at a law firm in New York City told me in an online chat.

A low-tech and bullet-proof way to flatten a redacted PDF is to print it, re-scan it, and save it. Or take a screenshot and convert the image file back to PDF. Either of these two ways does the trick, Urbelis said.

If you want to use software designed for redactions specifically, Adobe’s Acrobat Pro DC provides a redaction tool. We haven’t tested it, but it should do the trick too.

Some suggest using sharpies on the printed-out document and then scanning it. While this can work, it can also fail spectacularly, according to the lawyer in New York City.

“[Optical Character Recognition] tech is often good enough now that it often can get words that have been blacked out by hand,” the lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

Perhaps the best way to redact, however, is to edit the document in a word processor and replace the parts you want to redact with “[REDACTED],” Seamus Hughes, who used to work in the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told me.

“That’s how we used to do public reports in the senate that had public and classified versions,” Hughes told me in an online chat. “That way you can’t count the number of characters and make it out if it’s a short redaction.”

So, if you’re trying to redact a sensitive document, and unless you really trust the software you’re using, just take the extra step of flatten the document either by printing and scanning or taking screenshots of it. The extra effort is probably worth to avoid the potential embarrassment.

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