Blown To Bits

Facebook’s Lawyers Screw Up Digital Redaction

Thursday, February 12th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

On pages 73-77 of Blown to Bits, we go through three cases in which editors electronically redacted documents to remove sensitive information, not realizing that the way they were doing the redaction changed only the way the document appeared on the screen. The internal representation of the document still included the redacted text, which a simple cut and paste operation disclosed.

Not the most fascinating part of the book, I’ll bet. In fact, I’ll bet some of you skipped over it fairly quickly.

These were serious mistakes with big consequences. I hadn’t heard any recent reports of similar failures.

But the underlying problem hasn’t gone away. The electronic “document” metaphor is too convincing. It’s easy for a editor to infer that what is happening on the screen is what is really happening to the computer file.

A few days ago, it was disclosed that the value put on Facebook at the time the settlement with ConnectU was a lot less than it might have been, had the value been based on Microsoft’s subsequent purchase of a percentage of Facebook. How do we know? The imputed value (and ConnectU’s settlement) were inadvertently revealed by Facebook’s lawyers. Revealed how? Here is the account offered by

Large portions of that hearing are redacted in a transcript of the June hearing, but The Associated Press was able to read the blacked-out portions by copying from an electronic version of the document and pasting the results into another document.

How embarrassing. Moral: read Chapter 3. And remember it!

Added 2/13:¬†Here is the actual PDF. Go to page 22. At the bottom is some whited out text preceded by the word “REDACTED”. Select the white space on the screen (you can do this with any PDF reader) and copy it, then paste it into your usual wordprocessor. Like magic, the $65 million dollar figure appears!

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