Justice e-censorship gaffe sparks controversy

Thursday, 23 October 2003, 12:05 PM EST

A government watchdog group Wednesday accused the Justice Department of improperly censoring portions of a key report on internal workplace diversity, after online activists successfully unmasked the blacked-out portions of an electronic copy of the document.

The 186-page report was released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act last week and posted to Justice Department's website in Adobe's "Portable Document File" (PDF) format. But the department blacked out vast portions of the document's text, citing an exemption to FOIA that permits agencies to keep internal policy deliberations private.

The text didn't stay concealed for long. On Tuesday a website called the Memory Hole, dedicated to preserving endangered documents, published a complete version of the report, with the opaque black rectangles that once covered half of it completely removed. Memory Hole publisher Russ Kick won't say how he unmasked it, but experimentation shows that the concealed text could be selected and copied using nothing more than Adobe's free Acrobat Reader. Once copied, the text is easily pasted into another document and read.

It turns out the report began its life as a Microsoft Word document, and whoever was in charge of sanitizing it for public release did so by using Word's highlight tool, with the highlight color set to black, according to an analysis by Tim Sullivan, CEO of activePDF, a maker of server-side PDF tools. The simple and convenient technique would have been perfectly effective had the end product been a printed document, but it was all but useless for an electronic one. "Using Acrobat, I'm actually able to move the black boxes around," says Sullivan. "The text is still there."

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