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Avoiding Snares and Gotchas in Word 2003

Dear Mr. Holbrook (oops, that should be Holford): Thanks for your contribution in the amount of $(insert amount here: use fancy letterhead if over $100). We hope to see you and your wife (scratch that! they got divorced last month)...

Would you really like your contributors to see this version of the letter? Doubtful. But if you don't turn off some of the metadata options in Word, you could unknowingly be e-mailing documents containing all sorts of sensitive or embarrassing data just like this. Find out how to fix the problems, before they find you.

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A few high-profile lawsuits have shown recently just what can happen when information you didn't realize was in your documents shows up to bite you. In perhaps the most widely publicized case, SCO filed suit against DaimlerChrysler. Unhappily for SCO, an examination of the metadata in Word documents associated with the suit showed that the complaint had originally been prepared against Bank of America.

Metadata—that is, the "data about data"—hidden in Word 2003 files includes stuff like the document author's name; the filename; deleted paragraphs of text; revisions; and comments made, subsequently erased, and since forgotten.

In the SCO case, some of the "hidden" information was disastrously easy to find. Someone reading the Word document online just selected either Original Showing Markup or Final Showing Markup from the toolbar, and information that had been deleted showed up right in the text for anyone's perusal.

Not all Word 2003 metadata is accessed quite this easily. Sometimes you need to save the document in another form or open it in a different application, but no matter how your unintentional information might be seen on the screen of a lawyer, a competitor, or your brother-in-law, you probably don't want it there.

Look at What's Been Hidden

What kind of goodies could be hidden in the metadata of Word files? Let's look at it from another point of view. Let's say you're the proverbial hardboiled detective. You use Word to type your reports, but you're hardly a power user. This morning, a client emails you a Word file that she thinks is suspicious, sending it from her husband's laptop. She says he was smiling as he worked on it last night, probably having just gotten it back from his girlfriend.

This doesn't seem like much to go on, but humming a cheery tune (let's make it "We're in the Money"), you pull up the document in Word and save it as a web document. Then you take a look at the source code (View, HTML Source). Figure 1 shows what you see lodged in the metadata.

Figure 01 Figure 1

Now you really are humming. This isn't actual evidence, but it does give you the name of a reviewer who added comments. You could follow up on that. Elsewhere in this list is other data that may or may not mean anything to your current investigation: the name of the computers involved, networks, filenames, etc. These might not mean much now, but, being a provident HB detective type, you make a note of this info because soon a divorce lawyer may be asking you to search for this guy's assets.

The good news is that for most of us, most of the time, metadata is not such a critical matter as it was for the entrepreneur in our frivolous example. The bad news is that when it does cause trouble, metadata can cause legal fireworks that are as uncomfortable as they are unexpected.

Sometimes you don't want to leave metadata, just because it's sloppy. Where issues of privacy, finance, legality, and corporate intrigue are concerned, however, hidden data can have calamitous ramifications. But even in the tamer neighborhood where I reside, it can still have unhappy repercussions. For example, if I send clients a sample of my writing, I don't want them scanning my corrections and fixes—and I definitely don't want them looking at the revisions from my editor and reading her comments. I prefer to leave clients with the happy fiction that I never make errors.

So the simple solution to metadata is to get rid of it, either as a general practice when you work with legal papers on a daily basis, or periodically when you're about to publish your work or send your documents somewhere away from your desktop. It's easy to do this in Word 2003. There are just a few simple rules.

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