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'Blocked' contents of US report revealed online

A politically and racially charged report on workforce diversity issues at the US Department of Justice that was supposed to conceal the most sensitive information from public disclosure was posted in full on the internet this week as a result of a technical oversight by officials.

The 186-page report outlines "significant diversity issues" throughout the DOJ, including the perception by the agency's minority attorneys that hiring, promotions and assignments are unfair.

Although DOJ officials have withheld the report from public view since its completion more than a year ago, they decided to release it with the most sensitive information carefully blocked, or redacted, from public view. 

The report first appeared on the DOJ's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Web site earlier this month, but the decision to release it was made without the knowledge that the hidden portions of the report had been concealed using a less-than-secure method of electronic redaction. Nearly half the pages were blacked out in the original. 

Russ Kick, the operator of the website TheMemoryHole.org, was able to expose the redacted sections of the report and then posted the entire document on his site.

"It's one of the most heavily redacted government documents in recent memory," Kick said. "Even Congress's report on 9/11 had a smaller percentage of its contents blacked out." 

DOJ spokesman Matt Robinson said the department had no comment on how or why the document was not secured properly, or if any violations regulations were committed. 

Virginia Gavin, president of Appligent, which makes advanced PDF software applications, including applications for securely redacting sensitive electronic information, said the redaction of the DOJ report appears to have been done in a word-processing file using object overlays. 

"If you go in with the object tool in Adobe Acrobat and pull out the objects you still see the text underneath," said Gavin. "So the person who did this was not redacting, they were simply covering the information. And you can't do that with electronic files if you want to redact information." 

Seven divisions within the DOJ use an Appligent software product called Redax to redact data from electronic documents securely, Gavin said. The product is a server-based plug-in for Adobe Acrobat which the government has used since 1997. 

A spokesman for BearingPoint, the consulting firm which conducted the study of diversity issues at the DOJ when that firm was still known as KPMG Consulting, declined to comment, saying it does not comment publicly on client work. 

It is unclear whether DOJ officials or FOIA officials were responsible for redacting the document. Gavin said she "can't see a FOIA officer at DOJ redacting a document in this fashion" because of the heavily edited nature of the report and the fact that FOIA officials are aware of the limitations of using a word-processing program to redact documents. 

According to one of the redacted sections, "minorities are significantly more likely than whites to cite stereotyping, harassment, and racial tension as characteristics of the work climate" at the DOJ.

In addition, the report concludes that "the department suffers from an inadequate human resources management infrastructure" and that "there is widespread perception, especially among minorities, that HR practices lack transparency".

Dan Verton writes for Computerworld


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