Thursday, October 6, 2011

"Redactio Ad Absurdum"? Can't Tell You: It's Classified

One of the many advantages of having received a university education outside the United States and in a country that is officially bilingual is that I am no stranger to the word “rédacteur.” 

It was hard not to see the word on a daily basis in the Province de Quebec. You find it on the title page of many French anthologies or other works of literature.  You find it in newspapers. You see it on the credits of Quebecois news programmes. In French, it simply means “editor”, or the person who gets the work ready for publication.

The real issue comes when you loosely translate that simple French word into English in the United States these days. 

At that point, when rendered in good ol’ American English, the “rédacteur” can become something different – in fact, the word itself is laden with a whole lot of highly-charged political and social implications.  In effect, the French word “rédacteur” becomes the English word “redactor.” In the United States, that person - the “redactor” - is the individual charged with the responsibility of deciding exactly what you, in your role of reader or researcher, will NOT be allowed to see.  
These days, “redactor” equals “censor” when rendered in American English.

Of course, redactors are not editors in the traditional sense – they’re the folks with those thick black markers who cross out sensitive passages prior to publication - passages that they think could endanger national security, disclose protected personal information or embarrass the people in power (or the folks formerly in power).

That’s why I was interested to see that the Brennan Center for Justice has just issued a new 76 page report called “Reducing Classification Through Accountability” that focuses on the “national security – government secrecy – who’s really in charge here” conundrum. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but the concept discussed is important.  A culture of secrecy pervades parts of government and the twin tools of classification and redaction can have a chilling effect on the distribution of information.   

It’s easy to classify or redact things in the name of “national security”; fear is a powerful motivator.   

Unfortunately, getting stuff “de-classified” or “un-redacted” isn’t quite as easy.

These days, it’s not uncommon to find something like this in the reviews of any recently published book about foreign policy written by a former employee if the government:

The recent work describing the United States’ role in [fill in the blank with non-European country of choice] has been heavily redacted by the [fill in gov’t agency here] in the interest of national security.

The “national security” issue trumps everything for the redactor; the black Magic Marker is king.

Generally, for genealogists, the issue of “classification & redaction” isn’t much on the radar.

Still, it should be. 

Not because of concern for the records of the long-ago past, but rather - for the records of the recent past, the immediate present and the not-too-distant future.  While it won’t much affect you in the search for your 3rd great-grandpa, it may present a major barrier in your search for information about your third cousin, once removed.  And it may very well affect your great-grandchildren in their search for you and your offspring someday.

Genealogists need to be concerned about the state of future records, not just for the old stuff that they use themselves; future records are those that will be needed by future researchers not yet born.  And it’s not just about government records; other records repositories are already affected as well.

For example, there’s been a discussion about redaction that’s been going on in the professional archives world for some time now. Earlier this week, it took up a lot of space on the Society of American Archivists listserv. Archivists – in search of collegial guidance – continue to ask each other, “What should we do about all the stuff in archives that has that troublesome “personal identifier” information, especially if the person whose info we have might still be living?” 

“Personal identifier” information (aka “PII”) includes such things as Social Security numbers, birth dates, credit card numbers and home addresses.  Stuff like this ends up in archival collections all the time, especially when some descendant is cleaning house and donates “the personal papers” of her semi-famous professor-grandfather to a university archives. Problem is, a lot of this information is “almost old”, often dating to the dim period after World War II.  But not quite old enough. Some of the information concerns other people, not just the professor-grandfather.   There are letters, bills and receipts.  Pay stubs.  Tax returns.  Some of it is already public, easy to find elsewhere. This can make for difficult decision-making. There are only so many hours in an archivist’s day to look stuff up.

Then there’s the privacy issue, especially when it relates to things that many folks find embarrassing.

When I describe early 20th century newspaper research in one of my talks, I usually point out that yesterday’s privacy is not today’s privacy. For example, it is unlikely that this snippet, which appeared in the Johnstown (NY) Daily Republican in August 1893, would appear in any local paper today.  Editors would fear a lawsuit for “invasion of privacy.”

Today, local and state privacy statutes and Federal laws like HIPAA and FERPA (laws governing the release of “protected” medical and educational information, respectively) are putting archives personnel on the defensive, especially if they work in an environment circumscribed by staff attorneys who live in fear of having to defend their agency in a lawsuit.  Or face the wrath of angry donors.

The concept of “best practices” is in a constant state of re-examination, especially if there is no specific law covering specific records.  Should parts of files or whole documents be redacted? If so, for how long? Should “sensitive” information be removed altogether or be restricted in some way?  What about really old information, such as late 19th century medical records or early 20th century student records?  Where to draw the line, especially if it’s not clear if a record is actually “covered”? 

Does the death of the individual named in the “protected” record change things? Should a living relative embarrassed by information (say, evidence of illegal drug use or cheating) in an ancestor’s file in a public university archives be able to keep that information from researchers? What if the ancestor was a “public” person and the embarrassing information had already been reported in the press?  Should only “scholarly” researchers be allowed access?  What exactly is a “Scholarly Researcher?”  Does wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a tweed jacket fit the definition?

None of the questions above have hard and fixed answers; in a lot of places, it’s still “under discussion.”
One archivist in a local government archives noted that a record series covering records of juvenile offenders – including cases dating back to World War One – could only be accessed with a court order from a judge.  Another working in a non-public setting wrote that she had found a simple solution to the redaction issue: black out the offending personal information on the original with Magic Marker; photocopy the original; place the photocopy in the collection in place of the original; shred the original.  Problem solved. The offending tell-tale “private” information is no more.

In some states, records of institutions providing treatment to the mentally ill are archived, but kept unavailable for a very long time.  The entire series is redacted and locked down. Forever.

What if the records we used looked like this:

The more I read, the more complicated the issue becomes, especially when I consider a series of “what if” questions. What if I couldn’t access my great-great grandfather’s brother’s Civil War pension file today because someone 60 years ago observed that it contained detailed and highly personal medical information?  What if some early government record keeper decided that those Revolutionary war pension applications contained too much personal financial information about applicants’ families and ordered them burned?  What if somebody in the not too distant future determines that the “72 year rule” for the release of census information is entirely too short and needs to be lengthened by 50 years? Or decides that only redacted copies of federal records can be released (a.) in the interest of national security and (b.) to prevent identity theft?

Already, people get upset when county clerks place current property records and property tax information online for all to see. Some folks have requested that clerks remove their ancestors’ names from online record indexes in the name of “privacy.”

Bureaucrats are risk-adverse and cautious creatures by nature.  Bureaucrats tend to supervise and control people who run archives and records management programs. Sometimes, it’s easier to take the path of least resistance and keep things under wraps rather than to decide on the side of transparency and open records.

In private archives circles, this is a purely “academic” issue and open to internal discussion and debate; private archives and private records can be kept private for any reason whatsoever, especially when there’s no government law that “protects” them.  Archivists and their attorneys make those decisions about who gets access. They get to decide what gets kept and what gets “weeded”.

Still, public archives are another matter.

Here we enter the bizarro world of conflicting public priorities.  On one hand, we want complete transparency and total openness in our government. We want our politicians and government employees to disclose every tiny little detail of their private lives and personal finances so that we can all look it over if we want to.  We want to know all the nitty-gritty details of those government contracts and we want to watch them negotiated.  The argument often boils down to this - If it’s produced or paid for with taxpayer dollars, it should be public and open for inspection.  That’s good government, folks say.

On the other hand, we want our own “personal” information kept private, especially if it’s financial, health-related or potentially embarrassing, even when we’re receiving government payments.  If Aunt Sallie is entitled to Medicaid and food stamps, no newspaper should publish that information.  That’s private. The amount of Uncle Freddie’s Social Security check and pension from the bank that employed him should be private, but the pension of his next-door neighbor, who was a driver for the city sanitation department, should be public, along with his home address. Now it’s not about “good government”, it’s the “personal privacy” issue. 

And what about 100 years from now?  Will it matter anyway?

For archivists, it’s usually a “no-win” situation.  Do it one way, and you’ll have the “open government” folks after you.  Do it the other and the “privacy” folks will want your head.

Even though I have my own opinion on all of this, I’m not actually advocating for one side or the other in this discussion; I just want you to understand that this is a very complex problem in the world of archives and records management and is not going away any time soon.  Plus, it’s part and parcel of the ongoing discussion about records access that we (as genealogists) have been having with public records keepers for some time now. 

Redaction of information in records – many of them housed in government archives – is here to stay, as is the “classification for national security” issue.  Documents will continue to be locked up, withheld, occasionally defaced and even sometimes destroyed in the name of personal privacy by records keepers who are convinced that they’re doing the right thing. 

In the not too distant future, archives and vital records departments will be run by professionals who were born too late to remember that there once was a time when people weren’t deathly afraid of other people learning their dead relatives’ expired MasterCard account numbers.  When personal home office shredders  - like cell phones and home computers – just didn’t exist. When newspapers published who in town was on vacation and where they went. Or when Social Security numbers were routinely used as employee ID numbers and nobody really cared.

It’s something we all need to think and learn about.