Skip to main content

Best Practices for Video Redaction

Best Practices for Video Redaction
Technology Committee of the Chief FOIA Officers Council
Video Redaction Working Group

July 29, 2021

Introduction

FOIA programs must evolve and adapt to address requests for video records. Federal agencies create more video content today than ever before, whether that be in the form of law enforcement body camera footage, security footage of federal facilities, video conference meeting recordings, or training videos. If there’s a Golden Rule of FOIA, it is that if the government produces a record, requesters will want it. The following are video redaction best practices to consider for your FOIA program.

Video Redaction Best Practices

Smart from the Start. The time to consider video redaction is when your agency considers using video capture technology. Agencies must anticipate and plan for video redactions and identify the right tools, the right people, and the right budget to address requests for video records. Waiting for the first video request leaves an agency scrambling to find imperfect solutions on an accelerated schedule when facing statutory or court-ordered production schedules.

Right Tool, Right Time. Video redaction tools vary in complexity and ease of use. Finding the right one for your needs depends on: volume of video records requests; format, size, and content of records; budget; and personnel expertise. Some agencies might require full featured video redaction software comparable to Hollywood post-production editing suites, while others may need a far simpler web- or cloud-based tool that may even be included in your video recording software package. Agencies must also consider upgrading hardware to support software tools and security concerns with cloud-based systems.

Right People. Finding the right person for the job is just as important as finding the right tool for the job. The right person for the job might depend on your budget, the volume of your requests, and the complexity of the records.

FOIA Staff. Your current FOIA staff may need training or new personnel to handle video redactions internally. Consider adding video redaction skills to position descriptions and performance plans. Agencies report that adding tech skills and talent to their teams allows them to have flexibility to stay ahead of the curve.

Other Agency Personnel. Many agencies may have personnel or program offices outside of the FOIA staff with existing video redaction skills and expertise. Engage with others in your agency who are using video creation tools to support your FOIA program. Some agencies have in-house video studios and professionals that can share resources, help redact, and assist in training your FOIA team. Some agencies might consider inviting personnel with video redaction skills to the FOIA office on temporary details to fill short-term or unexpected video redaction needs, especially when their FOIA teams are already acting at maximum productivity.

Contractors. Agencies report that for low-volume cases, bringing in contractors on an ad hoc basis might be beneficial. While a contractor might cost more in the short term, outsourcing this work may allow your agency to sidestep issues related to procuring video editing software and training or hiring agency personnel to make necessary redactions. This option can provide efficiencies with statutory or court-ordered time constraints. 

Right Method, Right Release. Apply the right method of segregating exempt and releasable content from video records. Agencies can blur or black out portions of the screen, artificially modulate the voices of individuals who appear on screen, remove audio tracks, or remove sections of the record altogether. Consider the least obtrusive redaction option which allows maximum release of non-exempt content.

Time Commitment. Recognize that video redactions present significant time commitments. Video redaction often requires frame-by-frame review of video records and depending on the length and content of the video records and your agency’s video redaction tools and personnel, video redaction can be a tedious and time-consuming process. At 30 frames per second, a five-minute video requires redacting 9,000 frames. A processor may need to redact multiple portions from -- and apply multiple exemptions to -- each frame.

Communication is Key. Communicate with the requester early and often regarding the special considerations processing video records demands. Set expectations for the requester so that they are aware how long it might take to process and consider working with the requester to narrow the scope of the request to expedite processing times. A requester may be willing to pinpoint a specific portion of the video or even accept screen shot stills of the video to get the records faster.

Retention Schedules Rule. Know what video records your agency creates or maintains and how long they are required to retain them. Video retention schedules can vary widely depending on how your agency uses the record. Closed circuit security footage may only need to be retained for 30 days, while certain law enforcement investigatory and certain telehealth records may need to be retained for as long as 75 years. Adhering to a retention schedule and being able to access those video files ensures that the requester community receives the records to which they are entitled. Consult your agency records management experts to determine what video records your agency creates and maintains and for how long. Agencies should also anticipate video retention, storage, and electronic reading room needs for video records collected and processed by the FOIA office.

Conclusion

After decades of accepting government arguments about not having the tools or ability to redact video records, courts now acknowledge that “because [video] editing is routine and inexpensive, an agency cannot credibly claim that it lacks access to this technology.”[1] Courts have shifted the burden to the government to explain why teenagers can “insert cat faces over the visages of humans” in social media posts but government agencies cannot similarly redact its video records.[2] Other courts have concluded that it “would strain credulity” to believe that an agency could not redact video appropriately.[3] As a result, FOIA professionals must be able to respond to requests for emerging types of Federal records within the statutory mandates. Developing – or having access to – a video redaction component within your FOIA program should be a priority.


[1] Stahl v. Dep't of Justice, Case No. 19-cv-4142, 2021 WL 1163154, at *16 (E.D. N.Y. 2021) .

[2] Evans v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 951 F.3d 578, 587 (D.C. Cir. 2020) .

[3] Stevens v. Dep't of Homeland Sec., Case No. 13-cv-3382, 2014 WL 5796429, at *10 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 4, 2014) .

Updated November 4, 2022