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Mark Grossman


16 May 2002

When you e-mail a Microsoft Word file to somebody, he may be able to see information you consider private like text you've deleted, older versions of your document, the names of everybody who has worked on the document and other goodies. It's called "metadata." Do I have your attention yet?

To put it simply, "metadata" is data about data. It's the who, what, where, why and how about a document. It's also a trap for the unwary.

While this column will focus on Word, it's only because almost everybody uses it. Other programs have metadata issues that you need to consider too.

If you're not aware of metadata and blithely e-mail documents, you may be inadvertently giving away more information than you intend. If you're a lawyer, you may be giving away privileged information and creating an argument that you've waived some aspect of attorney-client privilege. If you're a businessperson, you may give away trade secrets. If you're involved in a negotiation, you may inadvertently reveal your negotiating strategy. However you look at it, metadata can be a disaster waiting to find you.

What You Can Give Away?

I happen to use "Word 2000," so my specifics apply to that version only and some of the details like how to access the metadata may vary depending upon the version you use. Still, the generalizations about the examples I mention do apply.

In Word, when you create or save a document, it saves summary information about the document. You can access it by clicking on "File" and then "Properties." You may find information there that you don't intend to give away.

Another interesting feature is "Track Changes." use it all the time so that all sides of a deal can see the changes made in a document, hen they were made and by whom. The feature can have a dark side if you're not aware that it's turned "on."

This can happen if somebody clicks on "Tools," "Track Changes," "Highlight Changes," and then un-checks the box "Highlight Changes on Screen." Now, the document is tracking changes and you don't know it.

With this scenario, what you thought was a private process of edits within your organization or between attorney and client are there for your recipient to see. Imagine the possible consequences if your recipient could view the wording evolution from "You are a disreputable thief with no morals," to the carefully crafted "Some people have raised issues about the ethics with which you conduct your business and we are somewhat concerned."

Another feature you need to be aware of is the "Fast Save" feature. Its bright side is that it speeds up "saves" by only saving the changes not the entire document. Its dark side is that it saves text you delete from a document and you don't know it.

You can turn the feature off if you click on "Tools," "Options," "Save" tab, and then uncheck the "Allow fast saves" box. In recent versions of Word, the default setting is that the "Fast save" feature is turned off. Still, somebody could turn it on and as easy as that, he may have access to the evolution of your document.

Another possible information leak can occur because Word saves the names of the last 10 people who worked on a document. This one is particularly dangerous because it' an automatic feature that you can't turn off. There's also no way to command Word to delete this information.

To get rid of this list of authors, you have to save the document in either RTF (Rich Text Format) or HTML and then resave it in Word. The problems are that it's an extra step most people won't take and it can be problematic because when you do this type of round-robin between formats you get unpredictable results with formatting and other features.

Caution is Required

If you want to minimize the possibility of metadata causing a problem, the solution starts with an awareness. Remember that just because you can't see it, doesn't mean that it's not there.

Every good litigator is now aware of metadata and the general goldmine one can find in the digital versions of documents. If you find yourself in litigation, you should expect document requests to specifically ask for the digital version of documents and not a photocopy of a printout.

There are third-party applications that purport to strip documents of their metadata and you may want to consider them. Still you need to remember to run the metadata stripper with every version of the document you create. Moreover, you shouldn't assume that your stripper strips all the metadata. Be careful.

My best suggestion is to look to the developer of your software for information on the metadata their software collects. For example, Microsoft's knowledgebase on their Web site is replete with information of their metadata. Read it or weep.

Metadata is republished from
Mark Grossman
Mark Grossman