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Why Your Flattened PDFs Still Need to Be Securely Redacted to Protect Sensitive Content

Redacting documents is critically important for legal departments and government agencies. By removing sensitive information from a digital file before sharing it publicly, it’s possible to protect private data or classified materials from being exposed. 

In the days before digital documents, redaction involved a simple, if crude, process of covering text with a black marker. Since redactions were done by hand, it was easy for mistakes to be made, which could range from using insufficiently dark ink to leaving portions of text exposed. The development of high-powered photo enhancement has rendered this approach all but useless, as even inexpensive image processing technology can distinguish blacked-out text.

With the transition to digital documents, organizations finally have access to true redaction capabilities. Unfortunately, they still tend to make mistakes when it comes to flattened PDFs that could leave redacted context exposed and vulnerable.

What Is a Flattened PDF?

A modern PDF file consists of multiple layers, each of which can contain separate elements. One layer might feature text, another image, and yet another a fillable form. The flattening process removes all interactive elements from form fields and combines all of the document’s elements into a single layer. 

Organizations frequently used this process to “lock in” form content to prevent anyone from altering the information after a user completes the forms. It also removes elements like dropdown selections within form fields and can burn in other annotations or markups, making them a permanently visible element of the document.

Flattened PDF Redactions

Unfortunately, simply flattening a PDF is usually not sufficient to securely redact a document. That’s because obscured elements are still present in the document; they’re just not visible when the file is viewed and printed. 

Recovering improperly redacted content is actually quite trivial in many cases. Two of the most infamous recent examples include information released during the investigation of political campaign chairman Paul Manafort in 2019 and court documents related to Facebook’s use of personal data in 2017. In both cases, journalists were able to copy redacted text from PDF files and paste it into a text editor to reveal the obscured content.

There are typically two ways that improper redactions occur:

  1. Covering Text with Boxes: This frequent mistake occurs when people try to treat a digital document like a physical piece of paper. They place annotations over the sensitive content, usually in the form of a black box, and then save a flattened version of the PDF thinking that no one will be able to separate the text from the annotation element. As the Manafort and Facebook cases demonstrate, however, getting around these “redactions” is usually quite easy.
  2. Changing the Color of Text: Another common redaction error involves altering the color of the sensitive text to match the document background. Changing the text color to white, for instance, might make it invisible to the human eye, but it does nothing to alter the content itself. The text can be made visible again by using the copy/paste trick described above or by altering the background characteristics in another program. 

The only way to make these methods viable for true redactions would be to actually print the documents with the content hidden and then scan them back into digital form, where OCR could be used to reconstruct a new file. But even in this case, there’s a chance that a powerful OCR engine might be able to pick up the hidden elements.

Using Proper Redaction Prior to Flattening with PrizmDoc Viewer

In order to redact documents securely, applications need to have access to specialized redaction tools that are capable of actually removing content from the document itself before applying redaction indicators. PrizmDoc Viewer’s redaction API can find and extract key text while also providing single or multiple reasons for the removal. 

This not only allows organizations to redact documents quickly, but it also ensures that the redacted information won’t be exposed later because it no longer even exists within the document. More importantly, the outputted document is entirely new, so there is no deleted information to recover. 

While most people are familiar with the distinctive black bars that indicate redacted content, even this leaves behind significant context clues that could provide hints of what was removed. Consider, for instance, a document involving multiple parties where the names of conversation participants have been redacted.

The following information:

PDF Redaction

The length of the redaction, then, would at least indicate when the redaction did not involve one person or the other. There are also many instances involving government documents where the length of the redacted information in classified material might suggest its relevance or importance.

When it comes to GovTech applications that need to remove large portions of information for security reasons, it often helps to perform redaction BEFORE turning a document into a flattened PDF. The PrizmDoc Viewer redaction API can be used to quickly extract text from a document and then redact it as a plain text file

Unlike a static PDF document, plain text accounts for width variations, so all redactions can be replaced with a standardized <Text Redacted> marker that makes it impossible to know the length of the redacted content. The text could then be converted into a PDF after the redaction process is complete.

Take Control of PDFs with PrizmDoc Viewer

As a fully-featured HTML5 viewer, Accusoft’s PrizmDoc Viewer delivers powerful viewing, annotation, and conversion functionality to your web application. It provides a broad range of redaction capabilities that allow legal, financial, and government organizations to keep their sensitive data secure and protect their customers. 

By integrating these complex features into your applications, you can focus your development efforts on building the tools that set your solution apart from the competition while our proven technology powers your customers’ viewing and redaction needs. To learn more about PrizmDoc Viewer’s powerful capabilities, download a free trial and test how it can support and enhance your application.