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The Doc Lockbox: Information Rights Management in Word 2003

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Laurie Rowell shows an easy way to provide extra levels of protection for your Microsoft Word documents. With information rights management (IRM), you can strongarm anyone who tries to access your files without your express permission, or graciously grant access to read, copy, print, and even edit your deathless prose.
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I'm not saying the world is full of creeps trying to steal a peek at your next letter to Great-Aunt Hattie. Even at my most paranoid, I don't fear hordes of Hollywood moviemakers scanning my hard drive for a glimpse at that whimsical blockbuster script that I've been doing the spadework on for some time ("Debt: Life in America"). On the other hand, anyone who does want an unauthorized gander at the golden words you've written ought to be foiled, right? On principle, if nothing else.

There are plenty of good reasons to lock documents. Leaving company competitors firmly in the dark about what you write can save both your firm's market share and your job. Keeping unauthorized personnel out of documents can reduce lawsuits. In departments such as accounting and HR, these legal concerns can be backed by such strong human considerations as preservation of privacy. In law firms, keeping a tight lid on data can mean the difference between winning and losing a case. On the off chance that there's ever a leak in your corner of the business world, you want to be the one wearing the halo, able to show that you were taking adequate precautions all along.

There are several ways to go about protecting your Microsoft Office documents and a number of safety measures that you might take, but one that allows you plenty of control over your documents is the information rights management (IRM) feature available in several of the Office 2003 applications, including Word 2003, Outlook 2003, Excel 2003, and PowerPoint 2003. This file-level security feature works with Windows Server 2003 Rights Management Service, letting you determine how you will share specific documents with those who need to see them—and confidently repel those who don't.

Better yet, IRM not only lets you determine which of your coworkers or clients can open your documents, but how they can interact with those docs once they're open.

Why You Want To Use IRM

In general, once your friendly neighborhood systems administrator gives a user access to otherwise restricted sites or computers, he or she can open any files on those shares. But the IRM restrictions that you put in place are document-specific, giving you access control to sensitive documents when they're no longer on your desktop. This capability reduces the odds that—either by accident or design—unauthorized eyes will be blinking over vulnerable data that you've written (or changing it or printing it for future reference).

IRM can secure your work against leaks from any of these common office info sources:

  • Email. In earlier versions of Office, when you attached a document, you had no control over whether it was subsequently forwarded. In Outlook 2003, you can use IRM to keep people from forwarding, copying, or printing your attachments, even after they leave the firewall. Emailed documents that are protected by IRM in Word can only be opened by those with permission (no matter which email application is used).

  • Servers. To prevent unauthorized document sharing or unintended use, you can set an expiration date on your document when you post on SharePoint or other network sites. When the document expires, it disappears from the share.

  • Routing lists. Protect your document from unintentional changes by implementing permission controls for editing and reviewing. Such controls can apply either to a whole document or to specified parts.

One final issue: Why would you use IRM instead of password-protecting your document? Well, here's one thought. If you assign password protection to a document and forget the password, it's tricky to open the file. In fact, you just can't do it, right? Actually, you can. With a recovery tool such as Passware you can access your protected data without straining your noggin to recall your password. Of course, any interested party can get to your data just as easily by downloading the software. The astute will observe that this capability rather defeats the purpose of the password, making access to supposedly "secure" documents so easy that it must take the fun out of cracking them.

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