Editorial : Unco-ordinated mess

Last updated 11:13 22/02/2013

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Our police seem to be dangerously incompetent censors.

Before their files are handed over to court defendants under the rules of disclosure, police are permitted to black out sensitive names such as those of informants and undercover officers, as well as some intelligence-gathering procedures.

So you'd think they know how to do that, but you'd be wrong.

Hundreds of files relating to a major investigation into commercial cannabis growing in the south were released with lots of blacked out bits to seven defendants. But many of those protective screens just vanished when the files are copied from pdf into another document, revealing the original text.

You'd have to work harder to penetrate a supermarket scratchie.

Police are working to have the faulty files handed back, but the drug defendants have had plenty of opportunity to pore over the names and operational details police didn't want them to know.

This is not the first disclosure of the blackout problem.

ACC and, more recently, the Ministry of Education have been caught out. Even the police themselves, two years ago, were forced into going to court on a similar basis. So it's a lesson not learned and not just by one person, given that these latest files came from three police districts - Canterbury, Otago and Southland.

All you have to do is google "redact" and you'll find some years ago the Americans discovered the broad problem and quickly made changes to ensure protection. Why then aren't our government electronic surveillance experts providing proper briefings for our departments and ministries?

The right way to black out information in electronic documents is neither a secret nor difficult. It's a two-step process and it's essential to do both steps. Whack the screen over the sensitive bits then copy it as a single image into a new pdf file. That ensures there's nothing beneath the black bits.

Indications are that some police districts are getting it right so it's more of an unco-ordinated mess than, ah, uniform ignorance.

This is such an important issue. How many violent and vengeful characters in cases, past and present, might now have reason to go back through files that have been released to them, just to see what turns up?

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- The Marlborough Express


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