One of an investigator’s greatest Easter eggs was front-page news not too long ago, courtesy of a court filing submitted by former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s defense team. In case you missed it, here’s what happened: Manafort’s defense attorneys failed to properly redact portions of a public version of an important court filing. This meant that one could easily copy the supposedly redacted text that was hidden behind black bars on the electronic document, paste it into a new document and voila, the once hidden text appears.

This obviously shouldn’t have happened, but mistakes like this occur in both high-stakes and lesser cases; and can come from either side. Mistakes aren’t just made during legal proceedings or by legal teams, but can also be made by FOIA officers, court clerks or anyone responsible for determining what, if any, information should be redacted. Nevertheless, faulty redactions are one of the – albeit rare – ways we as professional investigators can catch a break when swimming through criminal records, police reports, legal filings or public records.

Redacting Errors – Though Uncommon – Can Lead to Important Clues for Professional Investigators

My colleagues and I have seen this sort of redacting error in other types of records and, fortunately for us, it has revealed useful information and leads in more than one case.

There are times when we receive hard copies of police reports or other types of records where the person redacting the record appears to have simply used a magic marker but didn’t cover the wording adequately. In those cases, one can see under the black by simply holding the paper under a light. Other times, similarly inadequately redacted records are scanned and sent to us electronically but, again, a sharp eye can easily see the ‘hidden’ information.

Then, of course, there are times when we encounter sheer sloppiness on the part of a court clerk or police department personnel redacting part of a document we requested. The person making the redaction may forget or miss something that should be redacted or used a marker to cross out something but didn’t hit on the right wording or data.

What Redacted Information Can Inadvertently Reveal

Professional investigators are hired for any number of reasons – often to develop a profile on a person of interest, track one’s activities, look for past criminal activity or concerning behavior, determine if someone has a litigious past or research a particular issue of interest to our client. Names of individuals involved in a criminal case, whether victims or suspects, can be valuable information to investigators as they can be used to gather additional information about a person of interest.

Yet, that’s exactly the type of information likely to be redacted: an individual’s personal information (date of birth, address, Social Security number, phone number), a victim’s or suspect’s name or, in the case of Manafort, entire sections of a document detailing meetings and discussions of interest. Redacted information could also include the names and email addresses of government officials who sent or received sensitive emails, or entire sections of emails. Another stroke of luck for a professional investigator are those times when information, like a person’s name, was correctly redacted but right below it was that person’s address and age – unredacted. By simply reverse engineering the address and age through any number of free sites or subscription databases, one could easily determine the identity of the person in question.

Then there are the cases when redaction serves the intended purpose and reveals nothing. Sometimes there is so much text blacked out on a form that we can’t glean any useful information. In those cases, we may look for a blank copy of whatever form was used which reveals the information that would typically be in the redacted sections. For example, if we find a heavily redacted police report without much visible information we might then look at a clean copy of the form to determine which sections were redacted, such as an arrestee’s name, address, associates, narratives of the event or offense, etc.

As tenacious, information-seeking investigators, we wouldn’t be doing our job or serving our clients if we spent our time sitting around, waiting for a Hail Mary redaction error – which, again, doesn’t often happen. Instead, we need to know where to find useful and insightful information in a criminal case or civil lawsuit or a variety of other public records. There is an art to it – one based on experience, and a little luck.

In an upcoming blog, I’ll detail some of our more interesting findings from lawsuits, court filings or other public records and what we might have missed if we didn’t know where to look for it.

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