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Get Serious with Metadata

Where possible, it's a good idea to avoid using hidden text, fields, bookmarks, and hyperlinks to your local in-house servers in your documents; these things have to be checked and sometimes removed from sensitive material before it's forwarded. Fortunately, there's a great fix: a free add-in that makes cleaning up this kind of metadata simpler than slipping on an icy step.

Recognizing that metadata could prove a terrible pain in the pocketbook, Microsoft has provided an add-in for Office 2003/XP that lets users make metadata disappear from Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents (2002/2003). When you download this add-in, you'll find that a handy command has been added to your File menu, sensibly called Remove Hidden Data. Once the add-in is in place and you're ready to publish, just click the Remove Hidden Data command. The application tackles comments, headers, footers, bookmarks, field codes, hyperlinks, and hidden text. It removes all author data and the names of any reviewers, managers, or anyone adding comments. It scrubs away versions and revisions. My test file shrank from 137KB to a lightweight 33KB. In short, this dandy scrubber makes your docs squeaky clean of metadata.

So why not just use this add-in all the time? Why bother with eliminating fast saves and pulling hidden text manually? Well, for one thing, the add-in module doesn't work with digitally signed files or files that have Information Rights Management (IRM) protection. Unfortunately, these might be the very documents that you want to keep most secure. Besides, as you no doubt noticed, this feature doesn't work with all versions of Word.

As a result, those who handle documents that contain high-profile, political, financial, legal, or other private data frequently use third-party applications such as Workshare Protect or iScrub to clear away that hidden info. Sometimes it makes more sense to convert outgoing documents to PDF files to ensure that the metadata disappears.

In any case, if you think files from your laptop might ever be mailed to a hardboiled detective, be sure to delete those archive copies that still have the metadata intact. Okay? Make 'em work really hard for the goods on you!

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