• Lit Support Staff

Redaction Errors in Federal Opioid Case Reveal the Importance of Legal Technology

For as long as humans have been writing things down, redactions have been a part of the process. In the beginning, they were used to integrate disparate stories and folktales, but these days, when we hear about redactions, it’s usually in regard to investigations and legal actions.


For the public—especially those who are hungry for conspiracy theories and secrets—redactions are a tantalizing hint at what’s not being said; however, for those in the legal industry, redactions are a part of everyday life. But this doesn’t mean they’re mundane! On the contrary, failure to redact documents or to make sure that redacted content is produced in its redacted format can be case ending (and job ending for the person responsible for the error).


The most common reason this happens, is because law firms are taking the “redact by hand” route instead of using tools that properly manage productions to ensure documents meet the expected production requirements (i.e. making sure the information meant to be kept private is hidden). By not using redaction technology, law firms are flirting with disaster.


Which is exactly where one law firm found itself last week after exposing secret grand jury information in a court filing as a result of using Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat, instead of specialized redaction technology, which “is specifically designed to avoid such issues. The failure to use this software was inadvertent oversight.”


At first glance, the filing appeared redacted, but a member of the press was able to defeat the redaction by simply copying the black-out boxes and pasting the text into a new document.


Ryan Joyce, VP of Strategy at Ipro, commented, “Time and time again we have seen the same headline—a law firm or government agency getting in trouble for not handling their redactions correctly. Why is this still an issue after all these years? Any software can draw a colored box over text, but only the right software will produce it correctly.”


But even when redactions are properly handled, a newly published study by the University of Zurich may make them a moot point. By using a combination of AI and over 120,000 legal records, researchers “were able to identify the participants in confidential legal cases, even though such participants had been anonymized.” And if that doesn’t give pause, they did so with an 84% accuracy rate after mining data for only one hour.


Still, even if anonymized information in legal documents can be defeated—by robots or gross oversight—the requirement to redact documents correctly isn’t going away anytime soon. Which means law firms should ensure they have the technology in place to properly handle redactions, along with the processes in place to ensure that technology is used. If they don’t, it could mean sanctions for the firm and unemployment for the individual who made the error.

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