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Risk

TSA Breach Exposes PDF File Risk

Simply blacking out information in a Portable Document Format file won't keep data from prying eyes.

Employees at the Transportation Security Administration inadvertently exposed classified information about the agency's security procedures because, apparently, they don't know how PDF documents work.

What's not clear is how many other government departments, legal agencies, healthcare providers, and other organizations that deal with sensitive information are unaware that a quirk in Adobe's Portable Document Format can leave data open to prying eyes.

TSA officials posted what they thought was a redacted version of the TSA's airport security operating manual on a Web site used by private contractors looking for government work. The problem: the officials didn't actually delete sensitive parts of the document—they just blacked them out using a graphics tool.

That method left the underlying words intact, and they were exposed when readers cut and pasted pages from the document, "Screening Management Standard Operating Procedures," into a new file. The vulnerability isn't technically a bug in Adobe's product, but its existence shows how those handling secure information should be fully trained in the software they're using.

The end result of the foul-up was that highly sensitive information about TSA screening methods, interviewing procedures, X-ray machines and other terrorist prevention tools became easily available to millions of people on the Web.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Wednesday promised Senate Judiciary Committee members that her department would launch a full probe of the incident and take unspecified actions against those involved.

At the same time, Napolitano said the breach did not put the flying public at risk because the manual was outdated and many of the procedures it outlines have changed since its publication last year.

Some lawmakers, however, were not convinced. U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-Me), the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, called the incident "shocking" and "reckless."

"I intend to ask DHS how this security breach could have happened, what specific actions will be taken to prevent this type of reckless dissemination from ever occurring again, and how it will remedy the damage that has already been done," said Collins, in a statement.

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