so much for the paperless revolution

Lexology had an interesting story that serves as a really good reminder that sometimes, despite all the great things about modern technology, plain old paper may sometimes be the best way to go.

What happened? Well, to make a long story short, the US Federal Trade Commission inadvertently disclosed a large amount of information that was filed with the FTC that should have remained confidential. To wit:

The mistake made by the FTC was basic. In preparing its brief for filing, FTC staff wrongly assumed that the metadata in its word processing file would not migrate upon direct conversion from native format to portable document format (.pdf). In particular, they wrongly assumed that using Microsoft’s “Highlight” (or “Borders and Shading”) tool to black out text actually removed the text from the file’s contents. It does not. It “covers up” the text, but the text itself remains in the file, fully searchable and available for copying. The resulting .pdf appears at first glance to contain only black boxes in place of the redacted content. That content, however, is present in the .pdf file and can be easily revealed either by copying and pasting the blacked-out text into a word-processing file or an e-mail message or by viewing the .pdf file in a reader such as Preview or Xpdf.

Its one of those stories that makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time. The laughing because its easy enough to think “What kind of idiot would do that?” because the error was (at least for most readers of this blog) rather obvious. The crying because, if you give it some thought, there are instances that this could very well happen to even the most technically sophisticated of you – not just with PDFs, but any number of other forms of digital documents, communications and storage – and in any number of ways. The bottom line is that when things are put into digital form, they are often harder to get rid of. Its something well worth keeping in mind.