The FBI, Data Privacy, and Redaction Failures
In spite of the fact that technological advancements that have taken place in the last decade have led to the development of software programs that can automatically redact personal information across all file types, including videos, audio recordings, PDF documents, and email messages, among others, there are still situations where a legal professional or executive assistant can fail to redact an article of media properly. Consequently, when these circumstances occur, there can be adverse consequences for all parties involved, ranging from reputational harm to monetary fines and penalties.
To illustrate this point further, a major redaction error took place in 2016, when the U.S. federal government failed to properly redact several documents relating to the prosecution of the renowned computer intelligence consultant and privacy whistleblower Edward Snowden. For reference, Edward Snowden released several classified documents detailing the then practices of the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013 and was subsequently hit with several federal charges as a result of his actions. For this reason, Snowden has resided in Russia since 2013, but several court proceedings have uncovered information regarding the encrypted service that Snowden used to disclose a trove of classified information.
To this last point, due to the various non-disclosure agreements (NDA) that Edward Snowden had signed during his tenure with several U.S government agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the aforementioned NSA, he attempted to disclose several classified documents without having the deeds linked directly to him. Consequently, in an attempt to uncover the exact channels of communication that Snowden used to distribute thousands of classified documents to the general public in 2013, the FBI began conducting a series of investigations into the matter.
With all this being said, Ladar Levison, creator of the secure email service Lavabit, an open-source encrypted messaging platform, was targeted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for his alleged role in assisting Snowden in releasing classified U.S government documents to the world. However, this information was only discovered after a redaction failure on behalf of the federal government, as the FBI maintained for years that their original case was based upon the notion that Lavabit has essentially been functioning as a communication network for criminals.
Alternatively, a press release that was issued by Levison in 2016 stated that “The original case concerning law enforcement’s authority to compel the disclosure of an SSL/TLS private key, which belonged to Lavabit, and was used to protect the communications of all 410,000 customers, when only one of those customers was the subject of a criminal investigation.” As a result of these accusations, Levison was forced to “to install a surveillance package on his company’s servers and later to turn over Lavabit’s encryption keys so that it would give the FBI the ability to read the most secure messages that the company offered.”
Document redaction failure
However, unsealed documents that were obtained from a U.S. federal court by the transparency organization Crpytome confirmed that “[email protected]” was the intended target of the action against Lavabit.” Consequently, the FBI failed to properly redact this information from the documents they submitted to the court during their prosecution of Levison and his company. In accordance with federal court redaction rules, the personal information of individuals, such as email addresses, among other things, must be redacted from all documents that are filed within the federal court system.
To this end, the redaction failures of the FBI with respect to the criminal case that was imposed against Ladar Levison and Lavabit highlight the potential risks that can unfold when documents are redacted improperly. In spite of the fact that Snowden has remained in Russia since he initially fled the U.S. in 2013, and has been hit with several additional legal cases since that time, the redaction failures of the U.S. government only served to support Snowden’s original claims in the first place, as the FBI has been attempting to spy on Snowden under the guise of investigating an email messaging service, much like the NSA had been accused of spying on the American populace under the guise of protecting national security.
While the specifics regarding why the FBI failed to redact the personal information of Edward Snowden when submitting their documents for review in court have yet to be determined since the news broke in 2016, the fiasco underscores the need for proper software that can be used to redact documents in an efficient manner. Had the government officials overseeing the case used one of these redaction software programs, the FBI could have very well averted much of the public scrutiny that was aimed against them in the aftermath of the blunder, as their failures only worked to support Snowden’s controversial decisions, irrespective of the fact that these decisions were illegal.