Redacting sensitive information for Freedom of Information Act requests


Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It’s often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.

Federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of FOIA’s nine exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.

The FOIA also requires agencies to proactively post online certain categories of information, including frequently requested records.

What about sensitive information in the documents requested?

If you’re part of a government agency that receives an FOIA request, you know that it’s your agency’s responsibility to search for records in response to the request and then review those records to determine which – and what parts of each – can be released.

If you find information that’s deemed too sensitive to release, you’ll need to redact it before sending the releasable records to requesters. But that poses a problem. Electronic records can be easily redacted, making it impossible to determine whether only a few words or many pages have been withheld.

This problem was addressed by the 1996 amendments to the FOIA which mandate you’re your agency must identify the location of deletions in the released portion of the record and show where on the record any deletions were made, unless including that indication would harm an interest protected by an exemption.

How to effectively redact information in an FOIA-requested document

Secure redacting is a far more complicated problem with electronic files that it is with printed documents.

Where text is redacted, in Portable Document Format (PDF) or word processor formats, by overlaying graphical elements (usually black rectangles) on text, the original text remains in the file and can be uncovered by simply deleting the overlaying graphics.

Effective redaction of electronic documents necessitates removing all relevant text or image data from the document file, not merely putting a black box on it. To do so, you need software tools designed for sanitizing electronic documents.

PDF software such as Foxit PhantomPDF offers effective redaction

Using Foxit PDF Editor Pro, redaction is a simple two-phase process that lets you first mark the text or graphics for redaction, and then apply the redaction. Once you apply the redaction, that content is gone forever. (Which is one reason it’s a two-phase process, as this step can’t be undone. That’s why saving a backup copy is recommended.)

Search and Remove Text

You can also search for text that you want to redact in order to ensure it’s removed throughout your PDF document. This makes it fast and easy to redact information that appears in multiple places within your document.

Redaction at scale

Many large government organizations receive and develop a considerable number of documents that require standardization in areas such as compliance and accessibility.

If your organization needs to standardize PDF services across the organization, create a cornerstone for compliance projects, and have the ability to redact documents at scale, consider Foxit Rendition Server. It can redact hundreds of documents quickly using automated redaction based on pattern recognition. 

All in all, redaction features in PDF software can help ensure your organization is properly handling FOIA requests at any level, even across the greatest halls of government.

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