Friday, December 11, 2009


You may have seen the story the other day about the US Transportation Security Administration manual that was posted on the agency’s website several months ago. It was a PDF in which sensitive material was blocked out with black rectangles placed over the text. If one has only a user’s eye view of software (if you’re a manager, in other words) and can’t be bothered learning anything about what the software does and how it works, this may seem like a reasonable way to secure the information. You can’t see it, so it isn’t there, right?

As Alexander Pope put it, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

The fact, as anyone who has bothered to learn anything about PDFs knows, is that the text was always there, merely covered, and the simple expedient of choosing the text selection tool in the Acrobat or Adobe Reader toolbar allowed any user to select and copy the full text of the document. Oops!

A couple of months ago, before this news story surfaced, I was typesetting a manuscript in which the author attacked an advertisement for a weight-loss remedy. To dramatize the fact that he was saying some rather nasty things about the advertised product, he chose to use black rectangles to block out the product’s name (rather than use a more traditional editorial device such as underscored spaces: _______). But, as with the TSA functionaries, the author had left the product name in the manuscript and applied a black highlight, rendering the name invisible to the eye but not to the cursor.

When I typeset the passage, I used a similar technique (applying a character style that rendered the word as a solid black rectangle). But before doing so, I replaced the product name with “<redacted>.” This text is not visible in the printed book. But should the author decide to produce an e-book later, in PDF or any other format, the product name will not be inadvertently revealed.

This is not rocket science. It’s just responsible tool use. Top-down management often presumes that anything a manager doesn’t already know isn’t important for anyone else to know either and that therefore training for subordinates is unnecessary. The TSA is disciplining five people who believed that.


rose said...

I had no idea that was how the information "leaked." And that's certainly a fortunate author to have you typesetting his/her book!

Georganna Hancock M.S. said...

Yup! That was the first action I thought of when I saw the TSA story, mainly because I've uncovered supposedly redacted text, especially on forums. Good point about using Acrobat's feature, Dick.

Caran said...

I've heard similar tales of woe about Word and its track changes feature. Just because you aren't viewing the changes doesn't mean they aren't part of the document. They are merely waiting for someone to click the button to make them visible again!