Redacting Electronic Content in the Digital Information Age

Redacting electronic content graph

The age of digital information has been a boon to the speed and effectiveness of the world, bringing us a new level of connectivity. WordPress and other content management systems like it have revolutionized the ability of one person or group to disseminate content to the world. However, it has also made it difficult to withhold important information from those the information is not intended for.

Redaction, before the current internet era, permanently removed visible text and images from documents, usually with a black marker. The process was slow, expensive and inefficient, but was effective at destroying information. However, you can’t simply use a black marker on the internet.

Posting electronic content in today’s digital age has always posed the challenge of controlling the level of dissemination. For much of recent history, the ability to control the dissemination of online content has largely relied on a manual process, consisting of altering physical and digital documents one-by-one. Additionally, masking or hiding information in dynamic, user-specific ways has not been available.

As a solution to this problem, we’ve introduced WP Redactor as a WordPress Plugin, one which allows users to redact confidential information online, and allows the content creator to hide online content depending on the user viewing the content. The website creator can do this in one of two ways: by using a blacklist of terms configured in the site settings, or by manually redacting content in the editing system.

We’ve written this guide to electronic redaction to help you understand how this plugin can be used and how it works, so you can effectively redact electronic content for controlled dissemination.

Uses for Electronic Redaction

redaction prevents spread of confidential info

When used properly, redaction has been used to prevent the accidental spread of privileged, confidential or sensitive information. When it comes to legal, financial and personal information, proper redaction is key to preserving trade secrets and personal security. Some of the common uses of electronic redaction include the following:

  • Legal disclosures in electronic documents. Attorney-client privilege is an important cornerstone of the legal system, and protecting the information of the firm and its clients is paramount to running an efficient and reputable law firm. However, documents must often be shared online between attorneys and clients, and lawyers within the firm must share information in order to keep things running smoothly. Additionally, legal documents must be furnished to the opposing counsel, and may need to be altered to keep important information from them. Redaction can protect information from unintended eyes, keeping client and firm information safe.
  • Amendments to press releases. Press releases from companies or federal organizations may be altered as they go through the approval process. Redactions are quite common in this case, and protect sensitive company information and trade secrets from the competition or other unintended audiences.
  • Personally Identifiable Information (PII) elements. This is information that can personally identify an individual, such as a name, birthdate, address, phone number or Social Security number, should be redacted in many cases to protect the safety and security of the individual. This is especially true for legal proceedings, medial records and financial information, as the disclosure of this information can lead to identity theft or personal attacks.
  • Compartmentalization of digital content. Shopping sites, blogs and other websites publish a great deal of information on a daily basis, but not all of this information may be appropriate for the general population. Some information should only be made available to employees or contributors to the website, in order to protect company secrets, website security or company privacy. Additionally, some websites only make information available to subscribers, redacting most information unless you become a member of the website.
  • Provision to mask sensitive human resource information. Employees of businesses may not want their personal information, including their employment information, made publicly available. However, when releasing certain information, such as PDF files or articles to the public, this information may be included in the document.

In order to protect the privacy of employees, this information may need to be redacted in a way that protects the information from the public eye.

Other applications for redaction do exist outside of this list, but these are the most commonly seen applications, as they tend to deal with sensitive personal and corporate information.

When Redaction Goes Wrong

The transition from physical to electronic redaction has been problematic in the past. Where a simple black marker could destroy information previously, simply applying a black highlighter tool to a document or webpage does not have quite the same effect. Serious financial, procedural and personal data has been leaked in the past due to improper electronic redaction, causing serious embarrassment and major information breaches for private and federal institutions alike.

Freedom of info act

Some of the problems facing many companies and individuals trying to redact information from their documents include the following:

  • Insufficient redaction. Electronic documents are often redacted improperly. In a study of redacted federal legal documents, one study found the large number of failed redaction cases, where redacted information was still able to be retrieved from the document. This can happen as the result of some fairly simple mistakes.

    Some of these mistakes are the result of a basic misunderstanding of how electronic documents work. Because of the resemblance to the black marker used in manual redaction, many individuals will convert the redacted text to white, or will highlight the text with black to superficially conceal the content. However, all anyone needs to do is copy and paste the information to reveal the text underneath these simple measures.

    However, even deleting the information from a document can be insufficient. Many documents contain information on previous versions, meaning deleting the information from the document will still leave traces behind in the original text. This can cause serious, embarrassing problems for the individuals or companies involved, and can compromise the security of individuals and companies alike.

    In this case, a simple solution is an easy-to-use tool — one which completely redacts the information, leaving no way to access it.

  • Human error. Humans make mistakes, especially when handling large amounts of information. The same is true when performing document redactions. One study found that thousands of documents in the federal judicial system contained personal information like Social Security numbers, names and addresses, none of them with even an attempt to redact the information.

    un-redacted federal judicial system

    In larger systems like the federal government, or larger corporations and legal firms, this often happens due to worker fatigue and simple carelessness, as well as a lack of oversight from superiors down the line. In most of these cases, automated assistance can make a large difference.

  • Lack of user access levels. In certain cases, individuals involved with a particular document may require different levels of information. For example, the client in a legal case is entitled to know more information about their case than the opposition’s attorney, but not as much as the client’s attorney. In this case, different levels of access are required for each individual involved.

    This can get messy very quickly if handled incorrectly. In the past, this has often involved saving multiple copies of the same document, all redacted somewhat differently to suit the access level of the intended viewer. Not only can this be confusing and time-consuming to set up, but a single mistake can also mean the wrong document is sent to the wrong people.

    The simple way of solving this problem is establishing a way for all viewers to see the same document, just with different viewing privileges.

  • Innefficiency. Setting up electronic documents with manual methods can be just as time-consuming as redacting a physical copy, involving just as much time and effort as taking a simple marker to a piece of paper. If you’re creating multiple versions of the same document, this can be even more time-consuming, with each new iteration taking time to redact and set up electronically.

    To avoid this, a quicker, semi-automated method of redaction and e-document setup is needed.

These problems can all be solved with an efficient, user-differentiated redaction system like WP Redactor.

The Redaction Process

The WP Redactor tool provides an online redactor solution, one which supports the ability to redact information dynamically, based on the user viewing the information. Instead of generating several forms, each with a slightly different set of redacted data, it simply masks or hides portions of the same online content depending on the user viewing the content.

redact content by user steps

To the user, this mask simply appears as a blacked-out box if they do not have appropriate access, or as a transparent box surrounding the text if they do. To achieve this segmentation and make sure the correct information is displayed to each set of users, the WP Redactor plugin uses a mechanism to identify portions for redaction and distinguishes between each user group.

The first step is to set the users allowed to access the content, and assign different levels and abilities to each of these user groups. Typically, these levels are broken into author, contributor and subscriber. The author is the creator of the content, a contributor is a significant player in the content and a subscriber is a simple viewer. While the author has full access, the contributor and subscriber have no control over the content, and can have their viewing settings altered so they cannot see certain aspects of the document. Typically, a contributor sees more than a subscriber.

More roles and levels can be created depending on the application, but the author, contributor and subscriber are the three default roles. Different rules, including redaction rules, can be applied to each role, and even to new ones. The only individuals automatically allowed to see all content are administrators.

There are two ways to redact within the software: manually, by individually redacting content within an individual post, or automatically, by developing a set of rules applied across all documents.

  • Manual redaction. The post editor can manually go through the electronic content and use a visual text editor to redact content. This can be done by simply clicking and dragging a box over the text, creating a highlighted section.
  • Automatic redaction. Within the redactions tab on the WordPress dashboard, there’s an option to set bulk actions. These bulk actions can be applied to different user roles, and can be used to create a “blacklist” of terms which take action automatically. The administrator can add to, alter or subtract from this list at any time.

In combination, these two redaction methods work well to secure private information, or information that is not ready to be released to the general population yet.

Benefits of the WP Redactor

Along with this ability to redact information dynamically based on the user, the tool also comes with numerous features and advantages, each of which provides incredible benefits to a variety of websites and companies. Some of these features and benefits include the following:

  • User roles. Different customizable user roles allow for different redaction settings to be applied to each user. This means users can be sorted into different roles and given access to only what they need. It also makes it easier for the administrator to control who sees what.
  • Efficiency. Automatic redaction initiates the redaction process much more quickly and simply than manual redaction alone, identifying compromising words and phrases and redacting them, minimizing human error involved in manual redaction. Further redactions and edits can take place manually, and both are easily accomplished with a few clicks of a button.
  • Security. Blacklisted terms are automatically identified by the plugin, minimizing the chances of human error. Additionally, the redaction is a complete one, making it impossible for an individual to access the redacted content without an administrator’s permission or access.
  • Different redaction styles. The WP Redactor provides a variety of redaction styles and appearances, which appear based on the type of user. Users who are not allowed to see any content, such as post subscribers or casual visitors, only see a black box over the redacted content. On the other hand, contributors may see a translucent box over redacted content they are allowed to see, which indicates other users are not able to see the text at this time.
  • Hover feature. The hover feature in the WP Redactor plugin allows a contributor or subscriber to hover their mouse over the redaction box to see who redacted the content and when the redaction was applied. This is usually needed for auditing purposes.

Installing the WP Redactor

Does your website need redaction capability? If so, download the WP Redactor plugin from the WordPress plugin directory today in three simple steps:

  1. Install the plugin files. Download the plugin file and either upload it to the /wp-content/plugins/wp-redactor directory, or install the plugin directly through the WordPress plugin screen.
  1. Activate the plugin. Go to the Plugins screen in WordPress to activate the WP Redactor.
  1. Configure the plugin. Use the settings screen to configure the WP plugin and start redacting your content.

To learn more about this plugin, visit the plugin site on WordPress today, or stop by the DataSync webpage to see how We Use Better Data.