Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Unseen

MS Word 2003The New York Times warns us that Microsoft Word documents can expose far more than the author(s) ever intended (hat tip: my brother).

IT hardly ranks in the annals of "gotcha!" but right-wing blogs were buzzing for at least a few days last week when an unsigned Microsoft Word document was circulated by the Democratic National Committee... The stern criticisms of Judge Alito rubbed some commentators the wrong way (Chris Matthews of MSNBC called it "disgusting" last Monday). But whatever the memo's rhetorical pitch, right-leaning bloggers revealed that it contained a much more universal, if unintended, message: It pays to mind your metadata.

Technically, metadata is sort of the DNA of documents created with modern word-processing software. By default, it is automatically saved into the deep structure of a file, hidden from view, with information that can hint at authorship, times and dates of revisions (along with names of editors) and other tidbits that, while perhaps useful to those creating the document, might be better left unseen by the wider world...

The culprit is, of course, the "track changes" option that remembers the modifications to each document (as well as the name of the person who made the edits).

There have been a variety of bizarre gaffes related to this product "feature", the most notorious of which may have been the SCO lawsuit against DaimlerChrysler and AutoZone. A routine inspection of the document showed that Bank of America had also been a target.

If you haven't used it before, the change-tracking feature is best illustrated by an example:

[Kristin] Let's offer them $1.75Mill [John] How about 1.5M - and we go up to 1.75 if needed. [Kristin] Okay

We are prepared to offer you shares and cash worth $1.5 million if the deal is closed by December 1, 2005.

I guess we know these folks are really prepared to go up to $1.75 million.

Here's a simple set of steps you can take to protect yourself if you're forwarding Word documents around. When you're ready to distribute a document outside your organization:

1) Open up a blank document in Word.
2) Use the menu choice 'Edit -> Select all' on the original document and then 'Edit -> Copy' to copy it to the clipboard
3) Paste it into the blank document and save it as the doc to be forwarded.

This way, there ain't no history goin' along for the ride.

It's kind of a shame that the Word team didn't disable this feature by default. Or, for that matter, the Outlook developers didn't use automation to determine whether change-tracking was on in an attachment. That way they could at least issue a warning to the sender.

And, last time I checked, both teams were working for the same company.

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