What Hides Beneath: the Black and White of Blackboxing
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Introduction

MalyceGravesMalyceGraves, SCP-Wiki Staff member, Author, and general all-around curmudgeon here to discuss with you today the joys and frustrations of the █.

F.A.Q.

1. Why are you qualified to write this guide?
I have spent the majority of my professional career working in the legal field and/or writing reports for the US Government. I have handled and processed lots of FOIA1 requests, thus I am distinctly familiar with what legal redaction actually entails. More importantly, I volunteered.

2. Is there a TL;DR?
Yes. It will be at the end.

3. But I LOVE the █!!
I don't care.

4. But what about [DATA LOST]?
That is not redaction. While it serves a similar purpose to redaction, this is such a specific and niche thing that I will not be covering it, or any of the other wonky redaction-esque things used elsewhere (including the name-changing stuff in nominative magic, like in SCP-4000).

4. We already have a redaction guide, why is it being rewritten?
For several reasons, principally being that the site has largely moved on from the old way of redacting things and it was time to update and revise our redaction guide. Plus, see number 1.

Let us begin.

Prologue: Wherein our author discusses official [Redacted].

As a US citizen, I am primarily going to be discussing things in terms of the US Government's policy on redaction. I realize that many other governments across the globe use different methods and follow different guidelines for what should and should not be redacted/expunged/omitted, but I am primarily going to speak on what I am familiar with.

In the United States, we have something called the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This is the vehicle by which the citizenry can request information that has become declassified by the US government, or to request information that is "freely available" but is obfuscated by an over-abundance of data, or is simply available only upon request. (For information about FOIA, FOIA Redaction, etc, please visit the Dept. of Justice Guide)

In the general context of the SCP wiki, if you are utilizing documentation that is meant for general dissemination and the Foundation is masquerading or operating on behalf of a specific government, including redaction beyond what I'm listing here is generally acceptable. This is because the information is being given to people that lack the qualifications to read the information listed there. This document is primarily focused on the other side of the issue.

I also want to make one thing very clear. There are instances of SCP articles, tales, and GoI-Formats that blatantly utilize many of these forms of redaction in ways I would not normally agree with. However, they use them in such an incredibly well-written way that it makes my arguments moot. Good writing will cover or erase entire multitudes of sins.

On the matter of security clearances. If a reader can survive the memetic kill agent in SCP-001 to read the information posted there, then they have the security clearance to read whatever document you have created. There are certain examples (SCP-2317, specifically) of articles where this has been circumvented, but it requires work to place it outside of the implied security clearance of the casual reader.

Act One: Wherein our author laments the use of ███████.

████ in the real world is used to indicate that something has been redacted or intentionally obfuscated to protect something that needs to remain secret. This could be operational language or titles for something that remains Top Secret (ie. The Manhattan Project), personally identifying information for people who are still on active duty (ie. law enforcement officers, undercover operatives), geographic information for secret installations/projects (ie. Cheyenne Mountain NORAD pre-declassification), and other similar things.

Normally one would encounter this form of redaction in a document that has been printed out, marked over with a big black marker, then scanned or otherwise digitally reproduced. Occasionally one can come across this in a purely digital space to indicate information has been removed, but this is much more rare these days as there are much cleaner ways of redacting specific information. It is in this case that you most often come across something like [REDACTED] or [TOP SECRET EYES ONLY] or some other such. In the purest sense of the concept, █ and [REDACTED] are essentially the same thing.

All too often I come across a new author and their draft and it is just full of little █ scattered throughout their draft like little distracting snowflakes. Occasionally I come across entire sections of ████████████████, and this is even more of a visual disturbance. And this comes to my first major point.

The █ acts as a massive distraction within the visual field.

In just about any document with a lot of text, anything that breaks that uniformity is going to draw the eye. In a macro sense, this can be utilized to focus the reading path, allow the eye to take "breaks" from reading big blocks of text. Sometimes it is important to break up large blocks of text in order to make the reading a more manageable task. Especially on the internet where we are reading this document on various sized screens.

If you are going to use the █, it needs to be used in such a way that it justifies doing something that could seriously derail the flow one falls into while reading a document. Since most users headcanon that they have the highest security clearance possible, it would be manifestly ridiculous for someone to read a passage like this:

Special Containment Procedures:

SCP-XXX-1 is contained in a ████████ object containment locker at Site-██. A Class-██ Scranton Reality Anchor has been permanently affixed to the ██████████, and should be checked monthly for ████████████.

Not only is it entirely implausible for me to see redacted things in this instance, it also completely defeats the purpose of listing special containment procedures in the first place. These are the specific instructions on how to contain this anomaly. How I am supposed to follow these instructions if I cannot even read them?

These uses of █s are not justified here in any way. They break up the text, distract the reader, and they absolutely do not fit in-universe.

The other place that I see it used frequently is to unnecessarily disguise specific information.

SCP-XXXX was recovered on June 1, 19██ from ██████, AL by ██████ Smith.

In my opinion, this is just lazy worldcrafting. Using specific dates puts the events of the piece in context, it allows the reader to follow a timeline that is both useful and believable.

Removing proper names like this is also distracting and frustrating. If I have the clearance necessary to read that SCP-XXXX can potentially destroy the world, why the hell do I not have the clearance to know where it was found and who found it? It's frustrating and does not justify the distraction of the █ itself.

In the past, the █ has been used as a way to generate suspense, or to showcase that the reader just isn't cleared to know that information. In much more recent articles, this has largely gone out of favor because it generally looks sloppy and no longer really fits in-universe. Using █ to generate mystery is largely seen as sloppy and breaks immersion. I can read about SCP-001 and SCP-2000, but I cannot see where Agent MacGuffin found the anomalous toy car?

There are times, however, when the █ is useful.

Consider this:

O5-█: This one has already been voted on by Overwatch Command, and it has been designated as Essential.

DeCroix: Forgive me, sir, but are you saying that Command has already considered this, without advice from the Ethics Committee?

O5-█: That's exactly what I'm saying, Jonathon. This one is going to continue, whether you like it or not.


In this use we see the █ used specifically to redact which member of the O5 Council was involved this discussion. It is justified in-universe because of the long-standing practice of keeping the identities of the O5s completely secure.

It is justified out-of-universe because this minor redaction draws attention to the dialogue of someone who has been granted authority to push the plot along a specific course. Their words are important, so drawing additional attention to their lines works.

Additionally, it doesn't really matter (in this instance) which of the 13 was actually present here, so occluding their number with a █ does not remove any information that has any real impact on what was said.

A review of the █ & suggested Reading:

As a general rule, the █ should never be used to redact information that is essential to the piece. It should only be used when the distracting elements of its use can be justified, and should never be used simply because the author can't be arsed to come up with a name or date for something.

  • SCP-1459-J uses it to mock the over-use of the blackbox on the site as a whole.
  • SCP-3597 uses the blackbox to suggest a linkage to another SCP article that we all know doesn't exist, but it might. It is one of the few uses of the box to build plausibility and suspense that still works, primarily for expediency.
  • SCP-2231 uses the blackbox to remove personally identifying data (SSN & address) of someone that exists in "real life". This data is not germane to the story being told, and the blackbox is not excessive.
  • SCP-4583 uses faux blackboxes to excellent effect, showcasing the concept that the data hidden may or may not be changing based upon perceived temporal reality.

Act Two: Wherein our author meets a thaumaturge, and they discuss [DATA EXPUNGED].

[DATA EXPUNGED] is not often used in the real world. "To Expunge" is defined by the American Bar Association like this: "To 'expunge' is to 'erase or remove completely.' In law, 'expungement' is the process by which a record of criminal conviction is destroyed or sealed from state or federal record."

The only time I have ever seen this in the real world is when harmful scripts and/or intrusion attempts have been removed from a text log. Even then, it is almost immediately described as what it was.

In-universe, this has come to mean that the information removed is dangerous. In a universe where info- and cognito-hazards exist, having a way to remove them without harming the reader is tremendously important.

This should NEVER be used to remove important information unless it is (once again) justified within the narrative of the piece itself. Consider:

[Alpha-3 raises her rifle as SCP-XXXX can be seen turning the corner at the end of the hall.]

Alpha-3: Brace for encounter! Target is in view!

[SCP-XXXX raises a forelimb and makes a series of gestures.]2

SCP-XXXX: [DATA EXPUNGED]

Alpha-3: [screams in agony as her eardrums melt.]

Alpha-2: Filters on, people! Target is using a form of auditory hazard.

A review of [DATA EXPUNGED] & suggested Reading:

Use [DATA EXPUNGED] when the information expunged would represent a danger to whoever sees/hears/reads it.

  • SCP-5790 uses [DATA EXPUNGED] in a wholly unique and fairly exciting way, even if whole swathes of information are removed, it still manages to tell an incredible story.
  • SCP-4354 uses it to remove a whole section of visual hazardous data, but leaves part of the data behind to know that it did something.
  • SCP-5154 showcases exactly how [DATA EXPUNGED] should be used.
  • SCP-4855 uses [DATA EXPUNGED] correctly, but █ use is excessive.

Act Three: Wherein our author finds [Data omitted for brevity], and rejoices.

[Data omitted] is not the same as either █ or [DATA EXPUNGED]. Where the first hides identifying information due to redaction and the second removes a hazard, [Data omitted] generally removes information that is irrelevant or not useful to the topic at hand. In the real world this is often used as a short-hand way of saying that stuff happened that is not germane to whatever is being reported on. Journalists use it frequently to denote unimportant interactions were removed, but also to indicate that whatever quote they're using didn't just appear in a vacuum.

This is primarily used as an author's tool to omit something that is extraneous to the information being transmitted, but also allows for adding a touch of realism to a conversation or a letter/memo.

Properly used, the [Data omitted] tag can add flavor to something, give an indication that more things were discussed, but without having to add empty text to your narrative.

Consider:

O5-█: [chuckling] You've spent too much time working with the Soviets, John. The US has money to burn, especially with the Apollo missions essentially -

[Several minutes of extraneous conversation have been omitted for brevity.]

Franks: The funding issue and my pending amnestic treatments aside, the MKDalton event also has provided the impetus to give us greater oversight and access to the CIA information network.

In this usage we see that O5-█ and "John" experienced a turn in the conversation that was not germane to the topic covered by the SCP article. Adding it with the descriptor allowed for a bit of "flavor" to be added in, because the conversation was supposed to be casual. These are colleagues discussing things, and (as the author) I wanted to reinforce that the conversation WAS casual without adding in a bunch of pointless lines that weren't important.

Also, consider:

To: John Smith, Director
From: Paige Beck, Head Researcher
Re: Status update


John,

I wanted to give you an update on several of the different projects that I'm working on, principally Project Aurora, the SCiPNET retrofit, and SCP-XXXX.

[Irrelevant data omitted for brevity.]

Research into SCP-XXXX is progressing nicely. Just this morning we concluded that…

Here we see that the email contained information about several things, as a lot of status update memos do, but we only need to read the parts about SCP-XXXX. Again, saving space and adding "flavor" to the narrative.

A review of the [Data omitted due to…] & suggested reading:

Use [Data omitted] as an author's tool to add flavor, but don't use it to remove information that is actually useful to the document.

  • SCP-4690 uses [Data omitted] to remove extraneous data in the addenda.
  • SCP-5608 omits header and beginning information about an interview, because adding the information would have been redundant.
  • SCP-2231 omits the end of an interview for brevity.
  • SCP-5560 also omits extraneous data properly.

TL;DR: Wherein the author reviews everything in shorthand.

The quick and dirty-

  • █ should be avoided whenever possible. It creates a giant distraction in the visual field and almost always detracts from the efficacy of the piece.
  • [DATA EXPUNGED] should only be used when the knowledge is dangerous (Cognito-, Info-, Visual hazards, etc)
  • Sometimes, you can get away with using [Data omitted], but only if the stuff omitted is irrelevant to the plot.

A bit of advice: Write your drafts with no redaction whatsoever. Fill in all the data and see if the story reads the same without any of the redactions you originally planned. Whenever you come to a point where you think you should redact, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is this redaction going to remove information necessary to containment?
  2. Does this redaction cause a break in the reading flow that I don't want?
  3. Could I write this in a way that doesn't need redaction?
  4. Am I redacting this because I can't think of what to say instead?

If you answer "Yes" to any of these, reconsider.

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