May 31, 2004
Q: I heard that Microsoft Word has all kinds of hidden personal information that is embedded in every document that is viewable by anyone who opens it. Is this true, and if so, how do I get rid of it? — Chuck
A: Many of the Microsoft productivity programs such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint use hidden "metadata" that track changes, updates, contributors and comments for anyone who works with the files.
You can view some of the information by opening the file, then clicking on File, then on the Properties option in the various programs.
Metadata is "data about the data." Think of it as the information about the information. For example, books contain information, but they also contain information about the book itself such as author, the publisher, the edition and publishing date. Metadata serves a similar purpose for documents in the Microsoft programs.
The biggest problem with the hidden metadata is that all of the changes that have been made by all of the parties involved are actually still hidden in the document. Under normal circumstances, these hidden bits of data are not viewable, but with some very basic tools that are freely available on the Internet, a recipient of a document could easily uncover these changes.
This could be devastating in a legal case, contract negotiations or even if you had simply put your Social Security number into a document, then re m oved it for privacy reasons.
There was a well-publicized case in the United Kingdom last year in which the authors of a controversial government dossier were exposed after the posted Word document was dissected by an IT researcher. The researcher found four names and information regarding who had revised the file, what the revisions were and in which order it was revised. He was even able to tell the point at which the file was copied to a floppy disk!
This was not an isolated incident of the embarrassment caused by the use of Word documents with hidden data. Public officials have been maligned when early "revision" remarks make it into the press, unsophisticated criminals have been caught because they used a Word document in the commission of a crime and companies in negotiations have found their adversaries seemed to know things that they shouldn’t.
For the average user, the problem can be just as dangerous, especially when you consider the possibilities for identity theft.
There are a number of things that you can do to protect yourself before sending, posting or doing anything with a Word document that may become publicly available.
The first is to change the default setting in Word that saves personal information with the document. With Word open, click on the Tools menu, then on Options, then on the Security Tab.
Place a check mark in the "Remove personal information from file properties on save" and "Warn before printing, saving or sending a file that contains tracked changes or comments."
A more comprehensive method of protection is to download a recently published tool that will scrub the hidden data from your Microsoft related files. It is available for free at http://microsoft.com. Once this tool is installed, you can click on the File menu, and a new option to "Remove Hidden Data" should appear on the list.
Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services, Data Doctors Franchise Systems and host of the "Computer Corner" radio show Saturdays at noon on KTAR (620 AM). Readers may send questions to email@example.com.