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How to Redact a PDF File

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How to Redact a PDF File
Hannelore Foerster/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Redacting a pdf file allows you to keep your document's formatting while hiding sensitive information. Redaction can and should be used to cover information such as Social Security Numbers, competitive information and even images. In a properly redacted file, formatting elements such as spacing remain unchanged, while classified information appears as a black box.

Sounds easy, right? Just highlight the text, change the highlight color to match the font color and everything disappears.

Or not. The document I've just described hasn't been redacted at all. The text is still in the document. Anyone with the most basic knowledge of word processing (and who doesn't have that knowledge today?) will copy your "redacted" information, paste it into a text file and view your classified information in all its naked glory.

You'd be surprised how many people make this rookie mistake when publishing sensitive information. In 2009 the Transportation Security Administration posted their Screening Management Standard Operating Procedure Manual on the FBO.gov website as part of a bid package. The manual, which provided details about the agency's airport screening procedures, was quickly pulled. But not before it was picked up and posted on sites such as Cryptome and Wikileaks. The SOP contained the following footnote on every page:
SENSITIVE SECURITY INFORMATION WARNING: THIS RECORD CONTAINS SENSITIVE SECURITY INFORMATION THAT IS CONTROLLED UNDER 49 CFR PARTS 15 AND 1520. NO PART OF THIS RECORD MAY BE DISCLOSED TO PERSONS WITHOUT A "NEED TO KNOW," ... UNAUTHORIZED RELEASE MAY RESULT IN CIVIL PENALTIES OR OTHER ACTION.

Whoever posted the pdf document thought they were exercising due diligence by drawing little black boxes over the sensitive parts. Congress wasn't impressed.

Difficulty: Average
Time Required: Time required depends on the amount of information to be redacted.

Here's How:

  1. Convert your document to Adobe PDF format. There are several ways to do this, depending on your word processor of choice. Open Office, for instance, puts a button in the task bar that lets you export your document to pdf format with two clicks. Word 2010 allows you to "save as" a pdf file. You can also download various print drivers and file converters that will bring you the same functionality.

  2. Download a copy of Adobe Acrobat. The free version of Adobe Reader doesn't include the redaction tools needed to properly remove data, so you'll need the full version of Acrobat.

  3. Open your document in Adobe Acrobat.
  4. Select Advanced Menu/Redaction/Show Redaction Toolbar
  5. Select the Mark for Redaction tool from the Redaction Toolbar. A dialog box will remind you that your redactions will become permanent once the document is saved.

  6. Highlight the text or images that you wish to redact by holding down your Ctrl key and dragging the cursor. The Mark for Redaction tool will also give you an option to redact an entire page or page range. Once the text or graphic has been covered, you can also double click on the redacted area to add a sticky note.

  7. Review your final redactions.

  8. Select Apply Redactions from the Redaction Toolbar. Again, a dialog box will remind you that these changes will become permanent once your document has been saved. You will want to add an "r" or some other indication to the redacted version's file name. Remember to keep the original document in its pristine format.

What You Need

  • A PDF File of Your Document
  • Adobe Acrobat
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