Hidden data in Microsoft Word documents

It must have been the week for it. The most popular support question I had last week (other than the perennial “How do I make my machine go faster?”) is about the Track Changes settings in Word.

CNET News.com had an article back in January 2006 entitled Editing tips from the NSA (National Spooks Academy?) which detailed some of the bigger and better oopses that had been found and a 13 page PDF that the NSA (No Spying On Americans?) with the catchy title “Redacting with Confidence: How to Safely Publish Sanitized Reports Converted From Word to PDF”.

So what’s the actual problem here?

Firstly, if you send your e-mail business letters, resumes and personal documents as Word documents, you may be telling people things that wouldn’t really want to have out there. Unless you take extra steps, recipients of Word documents can easily see items deleted or modified.

For example, how about that report you sent to the client? Inside it you originally had the real budget figures. You changed that to the marketing figures but the client may now know what you really are charging. Hidden within that letter was your original wording. Microsoft Word dutifully saved it all. And your client doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to find it.

Anybody who uses Word risks exposing sensitive information. Word inserts metadata (information about data) to help identify author names, document titles, keywords, print and save dates, and names of people who have reviewed and saved a document. Metadata can also spill the beans about your place of business: your company or organization’s name, the name of the network server or hard drive on which the document is saved and any comments added.

Some of this data is easily seen in Word. And some can be viewed only by opening the document in a specialised program. Regardless, the data is there.

Why? Well metadata is useful when multiple people are working on one document. Let’s say you create a document and send it to your boss for approval. You’ll probably want to track changes that were made. However, it could be disastrous if others discover the information. Imagine submitting a business proposal with varying figures (written as comments) on “nonnegotiable pricing.”

Hey, if you have never run into this problem, don’t worry too much. Bitform studied Word, Excel and PowerPoint files on the websites of several large American companies (now remember this is the stuff that you and I can happily download just by clicking the link). and Bitform was able to identify thousands of user names from these documents. Privacy act ? what privacy act.

Using Office 2003 or Office XP? Microsoft have an AddIn for you to

Remove Hidden Data
. With this add-in you can permanently remove hidden data and collaboration data, such as change tracking and comments, from Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft PowerPoint files.

But for those of us not on the Microsoft latest and greatest BETA upgrade path and still using 2000 ( and quite happily I might add) we have been forgotten. But here are a few things that you can do.

Turn off Fast Save. This feature speeds up saving a document by saving only changes made to a document. But ( and here is where the fun begins) text that you delete from a document may still remain. Microsoft recommends turning off this feature to eliminate any chance of deleted text remaining in the document.
Click Tools, then Options. Click the Save tab. Clear the “Allow fast saves” check box and click OK.

You can remove personal information from a document when you save it. In Word 2000, click Tools, the Options. Select the User Information tab. Clear the information in Name, Initials and Mailing Address and click OK.

Turn off the Track Changes tool. In Word 2000 and earlier versions, click Tools, Track Changes, Highlight Changes. Click to clear the check mark in the “Track Changes while editing” box.

You can tell if the Track Changes feature is on by looking at the status bar (located at the bottom of every document). When Track Changes is enabled, TRK appears in the status bar. When Track Changes is disabled, TRK is dimmed.

IMPORTANT. Track Changes must be disabled before writing the document. Otherwise, any changes made will not be removed.

If this really worries you, consider dropping Word and move over to Open Office. I did, I really like the new version 2.

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