Omitted from the buzz about the poorly redacted court filings associated with former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort is the ethics of un-redacting and reporting sensitive content filed in U.S. courts.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, digital subterfuge was a key component, from creation of fake news to sale of Facebook user data. You’d think court filings on convicted Trump-campaign associate Paul Manafort might have been properly redacted.
Reporters hungry for more information about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation checked to see if a mistake was made in redacting a sensitive document prepared by Manafort’s attorneys.
It’s a common error. Tech experts will tell you that thousands of redacted documents online can be easily manipulated to view content. Often a staff person or official uses black boxes that can be moved or removed from a document or selects and conceals passages with black background, which of course and be removed. Just select the passage and use a white background, exposing the text.
In this case, Manafort’s lawyers had filed a response to an allegation that he lied to prosecutors. However, on page 5, either his attorneys or Mueller’s staffers did not “flatten” the PDF so that the redacted passages could not be read.
Adobe has a tool that properly redacts (i.e. flattens) content, also shown in the above video. Other ways include taking a photo of the document and making a PDF out of that or printing the document, using a felt pen to redact and scanning it back into a PDF.
An ethical question, largely ignored by the media, is whether reporters should have disclosed the sensitive information as it was not intended for public consumption. Perhaps the disclosure would cause prosecutors or defense attorneys to change their strategy or even taint the ongoing investigation.
The media associated the disclosure with collusion, reporting that Manafort may have met with a Russian intelligence contact and provided polling data from the Trump campaign.
According to the Washington Post:
Attorneys for Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, inadvertently included a big reveal in a court filing on Tuesday through their clumsy failure to properly redact key portions. They admitted that during the 2016 campaign Manafort and his longtime associate Konstantin Kilimnik, who the FBI has said has ties to Russian intelligence, discussed a peace plan for Ukraine and that Manafort also shared with him political polling data.
As for media ethics, It seems the standard seems situational: “If you make a digital mistake, we are absolved and so can report confidential information.”
Perhaps not in this case, but one nevertheless can imagine other scenarios when the dissemination of such information could pose a national security threat.
In the digital age, someone viewing improperly redacted court filings is going to disclose the content. As soon as one party disseminates that, others will un-redact and report.
Ultimately, then, the government and officers of the court have a responsibility to know how to use digital tools before filing sensitive documents in the U.S. Court system.