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The Oddities of CBC’s Snowden Redactions

cbcThe CBC has recently partnered with Glenn Greenwald to publish some of Edward Snowden’s documents. Taken from the National Security Agency (NSA), the documents the CBC is exclusively reporting on are meant to have a ‘Canadian focus.’ Many of the revelations that have emerged from Mr. Snowden’s documents have provided insights into how the NSA conducts its activities both domestically and abroad, and have also shown how the Agency’s ‘Five Eyes’ partners conduct their affairs.

Journalists have redacted documents or provided partial copies since first reporting on the Snowden documents in summer 2013. To date, no common method or system of redacting documents has been agreed upon between the journalists and news agencies covering these documents.

In this post I want to spend some time talking about the redactions that the CBC has made to the sole Snowden document it has (thus far) released to the public. I begin by explaining how I got my – almost entirely unredacted – version of the document and why I am comparing my copy to the ‘publicly released’ version. Next, I discuss the various redactions made by the CBC and comment on the appropriateness of each redaction. Where I think that information ought to have been released, or the redacted information is outside of the ‘personal information’ reason the CBC gave for redacting information, I provide or describe the information to the public. Finally, I write about the need for a more robust way of redacting documents: as I will make clear, the CBC’s approach seems (at best) scattershot and (at worst) inappropriate. The CBC is the journalist source that will  be controlling the Canadian Snowden documents and, as a result, has a public obligation to dramatically improve its explanations for why it is redacting sections of the leaked documents.

The Unredacted Version

This post is predicated on my ability to compare the CBC’s redacted document to my own unredacted copy. How did I get the unredacted version? Simple: I watched the episode of The National that initially aired the revelations in the document and freeze-framed the several seconds where the CBC scrolled through the unredacted document. From those freeze-frames I recomposed most of the document. While I was missing a few words on the right and left margins of some pages, I ultimately developed an accurate reproduction of the Snowden document. This is confirmed when comparing my text against the text released by the CBC.

I will not be publicly posting my full reproduction because I believe that there is some information that might be compromising to specific individuals. I will, however, be noting what the CBC redacted – in the following section – when I believe that information was inappropriately redacted or redacted for unclear purposes.

Analyzing CBC’s Redactions

In what follows I paste a screenshot of the relevant section of the CBC’s redacted document (.pdf) and then comment on the relevant redaction(s) contained in the given section.

CBC-Redact-1&2Redactions one and two: these were not shown during The National and, as such, I have no insight into what was redacted. I suspect, however, that it refers to the name of the network that contained the documents (NSANet) plus some additional metadata associated with the document.

CBC-Redact-3Redaction three: redacted information included the names of the two persons that were responsible for sending the document. It might have been appropriate to redact this information though there has (seemingly) been no analysis of the individuals who ‘sent’ this article. It’s possible that if these persons are suitably high-ranking that it would be in the public’s interest/newsworthy to include these individuals. However, I can appreciate why these names were redacted.

CBC-Redact-4Redaction four: this redaction makes no sense because of the insignificance of the redacted information. Specifically, the following text was redacted (quotations not in original): “(U) G20 Logo         G8 Logo”. I’m at a loss as to why such information would be kept from the public.

CBC-Redact-5Redaction five: this information was arguably important to redact, insofar as it listed an internal email alias (though, arguably, this should have been easy for NSA to terminate) as well as a set of telephone numbers for the National Secure Telephone system (NSTS). The NSTS “allows conversation up to the [Top Secret-Special Compartmentalized Information] level.” The information, however, likely is only of value when juxtaposed against other documents in an effort to ‘map out’ the contours of the NSA (such as the ‘Special Events Team’). No specific name was associated with either the email alias or the telephone numbers and, as such, it is unclear if it genuinely constitutes personally identifiable information.

CBC-Redact-6Redaction six: this particular redaction doesn’t make sense, either, given that it simply includes ways of interacting with the document in question. Specifically, the CBC redacted a set of hyperlinks that let readers provide comments or suggestions about the article, print the article, email the article, or examine the article archives. This redaction merely hides some of the functionality of the NSA document storage environment. While uninteresting, I can’t see why this needs to be hidden from public eye.

CBC-Redact-5Redaction seven: this is amongst the more interesting redactions. From the CBC broadcast I pieced together: “(U/FOUO) SIDtoday articles may not be republished or reposted outside NSANet without [unclear right margin] S0121 (DL_sid.comms).” The classification scheme – U/FOUO – indicates that the document was Unclassified/For Official Use Only. Such documents are often exempt from release under US Freedom of Information laws. We also learn where the document is from – NSANet – which isn’t information that should be particularly secretive since journalists and book authors have mentioned the internal NSA wiki-like systems before. Moreover, that the document was not to be disclosed isn’t terribly revealing, nor is the fact that the NSA might be using a product such as IBM’s WebSphere for document management and control.

Redaction eight: I don’t know what this was a redaction for and, as such, cannot comment on its appropriateness.

Redaction nine: without question, this is the most obviously correct redaction because it contained the name and phone number of the  information owner and publisher of the page.

Redaction 10: this redaction is just odd because it includes information about who ‘powers’ the document management system. Specifically, it reads: “document_by_corporate_web_solutions_powered_by[unclear right margin].”

Redaction 11: this is, by far, the most interesting redaction because the CBC, rather than redact information, simply doesn’t show it. There are three separate lines below “DYNAMIC PAGE”, and the CBC didn’t even include all of that line. For edification, the final three lines of the document read:

DYNAMIC PAGE – HIGHEST POSSIBLE CLASSIFICATION IS
TOP SECRET //SI//TK//REL TO USE. AUS, CAN, GRB, NZL
DERIVED FROM NSA/CSSM I-52.DATED 08 JAN 2007 DECLASSIFY [unclear right margin]

I don’t know why the above lines were excluded from the CBC release entirely. The last line, in particular, has been included in past Snowden disclosures: NSA/CSSM I-52 just means that the information was derived from the NSA/CSS Manual 1-52 about Classified National Security Information, which describes additional responsibilities of holders of NSA/CSS protected information. It isn’t particularly sensitive information at this point.

Improving Journalistic Redactions

Lest a reader be misled, I believe that some redactions of confidential or secretive documents are appropriate. However, when redacting documents released under access to information laws, the federal, provincial, and municipal governments of Canada provide more justification for their redactions than have been provided by the CBC. Specifically, the CBC merely stated the following to justify their Snowden redactions:

CBC News believes in transparency and showing supporting documents to its journalism. It held back on publishing the U.S. material until discussions with the U.S. government had been completed over the weekend.

The material is sensitive and CBC News has removed, at the request of the White House and the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, information that may identify individuals who could be at risk if the material was released.

While some information (redactions three, five, nine) was likely redacted because it would reveal potentially sensitive or personal information, all of the other redactions (seemingly) fail to meet those standards. What is revealed if the classification level of the document is published? Or the fact that there are wiki-like commenting fields? No person is placed at risk by revealing such information though it does make the document appear to have much more ‘interesting’ information: since the CBC states they are redacting identifying information, it’s suggestive that all the redacted fields might identify specific persons. Clearly, this is unlikely to be the case.

It behooves anyone who is releasing documents to the public that any and all redactions are appropriate, limited, and made for clear and informed purposes. It seems as though the CBC has redacted information it doesn’t believe would be newsworthy – information that would ‘normalize’ the document – as well as some genuinely appropriate information. Alternately, they may have redacted documents in an overabundance of caution because they lacked the expertise to appropriately identify what was, and wasn’t, damaging to specific individuals. Either scenario speaks poorly of the news organization.

The various levels of government in Canada have sets of laws that identify what they can, and cannot, redact when releasing documents to the public. Moreover, each redacted section of a document is supposed to be accompanied by a reference to which legislative exception(s) led to redactions. The CBC, like other broadcasters, lacks this kind of policy when publishing documents that it has selectively-chosen to redact. As I hope this post has made evident, news organizations ought to have a process at least equivalent to governments’ when redacting documents in order to transparently explain to the public why, exactly, sections of any given document has been redacted.

A written statement, such as the CBC’s, is clearly inappropriate as it was used to redact information that was out of scope of the reasons given by the broadcaster. The vagueness often linked with government redactions is infuriating for the academics, journalists, and members of the public who receive such documents, and the CBC should improve on already-bad government processes instead of failing to meet those already-low standards. As a public broadcaster it owes the public more and as an organization with journalists who use access to information laws it should already know better that use vague gestures to justify hiding information from the public.

3 Comments

  1. Interesting analysis, and congratulations on your ingenious method of obtaining the unredacted version!

    Redaction four may be due to concern that displaying the G-8 & G-20 logos without a “news purposes only” disclaimer or something similar could be construed as unauthorized use of copyrighted material. Lawyers tend to use an overabundance of caution in such matters, particularly when displaying them has little if any news value.

    Redaction six seems logical to me, as the redacted links include, for instance, a link to the article archives, which would no doubt have unredacted information which should in fact be redacted.

    • Christopher Parsons

      December 5, 2013 at 1:24 pm

      @Carl:

      The logos themselves weren’t there, it was just text for inserting the logos. So I don’t know that the news purposes exception would necessarily apply.

      As for redaction six, it was a hyperlink that showed the URL, but one that was simply underlined. So no URL information would have been disclosed, just the fact that there was a hyperlink in the first place.

  2. Very good that you took such a close look at this document and at the way news organisations are redacting these kind of things. Unfortunately we see inconsistent censoring constantly happening when media are publishing from the Snowden-documents. As you say, in doing so, they are doing their job hardly better than government agencies when declassifing things. That’s not really comforting.

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