Former Governor Rod Blagojevich’s attorneys should have read my article, “Is Your Metadata Showing? Avoiding Document-Sharing Disasters,” which led the February issue of the Illinois Bar Journal (published by the Illinois State Bar Association).
Illinois papers such as the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times are reporting that, due to a computer “glitch,” allegations in Blago’s motion for the court to issue a subpoena to President Barack Obama were not fully blacked out, as had been intended. The Tribune put up the motion here , helpfully providing tools so we can all see what Blago’s legal team tried unsuccessfully to redact. Rich Miller’s The Capitol Fax Blog also had commentary.
Doesn’t sound like a “computer glitch” to me. Sounds like whoever formatted and filed the motion wasn’t fully aware of the way PDF files work. And let’s face it: we may now be snickering along with the pundits at the Blago team’s public error, but that can apply to a lot of us.
Bryan Sims, a Chicago area lawyer who chairs ISBA’s Standing Committee on Legal Technology, and Nerino Petro, Practice Management Advisor for the Law Office Management Assistance program of the State Bar of Wisconsin, did a great presentation at ISBA’s Solo and Small Firm Conference in October and explained this very point, as I reported in the article. Here’s the excerpt:
Sims and Petro note that embarrassing and even dangerous releases of information have resulted from failures to redact metadata from files that were made public. For example, gaffes have occurred when Word or WordPerfect documents have been converted to PDF files. “What many don’t know is that when a word processing file such as a Word or WordPerfect document is converted to PDF, not only is the PDF image created, but an invisible text layer is also created,” they write. “Attorneys and staff who aren’t familiar with this fact attempt to redact information by simply shading the text to be redacted which, while making the text in a printed document impossible to read, has no effect in the electronic version.” The recipient of such a document may copy and paste the text into MS Note-pad, for example, to find out what it says. Using Adobe Acrobat’s drawing tools to draw opaque shapes over text to be hidden is likewise ineffective, Petro and Sims warn, citing federal cases in which the value of certain business transactions the parties had agreed should remain private inadvertently became a matter of public record.
Sims blogs as The Connected Lawyer , and Petro’s blogging moniker is Compujurist . Lawyers should add both to their RSS feeds. And if you’re a lawyer, judge, or law student, be sure to join ISBA if you’re not already a member, or, if you are, be sure to read your Illinois Bar Journals cover to cover so you don’t miss valuable information like this and my cover story in the April issue of the IBJ, “The Internet: Your (Mostly Free) Private Investigator.”
UPDATED: Bryan Sims observes that Eric Zorn, whose reporting and analysis I always find to be a breath of fresh air, has corrected the mainstream media’s uncritical reporting assigning blame for this filing to “a computer glitch.” Can we publicly acknowledge that the weaselly term “computer glitch” REALLY means a HUMAN action?