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The limitations of keywords

By Candice Chan-Glasgow

A high-profile case making headlines again this week illustrates the frailties of relying on keyword searching alone when searching for relevant documents in any document review project.

A man was charged last year with breach of trust for allegedly leaking government secrets, and his legal team sought a court direction to obtain thousands of previously undisclosed government documents needed to defend him.

According to an article published by the Globe and Mail, the man’s lawyers presented the court with evidence that his case was referred to by officials within the Department of National Defence using various codenames. Further, according to an article from the National Post, a witness provided evidence that the department avoided using his name to make it more difficult to search for relevant documents.

What emerged from the hearing was that the various codenames and phrases used by departmental staff to refer to his case were not used to search for documents required to be disclosed to the man’s defence team.

It is important to note that codenames, abbreviations, typos, and synonyms are commonplace within all organizations and that this is not an isolated incident. While keyword searching is a good starting place to identify relevant documents, it is literal and will miss responsive documents that contain unidentified codewords, jargon, abbreviations, and typos.

Keyword searching is also not comprehensive when individuals may purposely avoid using certain names or terms in their communications, for example, in situations involving internal investigations for fraud or other wrongdoing.

As we continue to watch this case unfold, counsel are reminded to take advantage of appropriate technological tools in searching for responsive records. Keyword expansion and other analytical tools can often help identify codewords and other search term variants that would be missed by keyword searching alone.

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