Volume 18, Number 4
June 2001


How to Make Sure Your Files Don’t Contain Extra Information

If you ever send contracts, settlement proposals, or other documents to clients, opposing counsel, or others via e-mail attachment, look out! Your electronic files may include "metadata"—previous drafts, revisions, and even comments meant for exclusively internal use. The metadata associated with your documents may contain confidential or privileged information. It may also include information damaging to your position in the matter at hand.

In addition to basic information such as your name, initials, firm name, names of previous authors, and where the file was saved, the metadata may include "redline" revisions in the document, hidden text, and comments. This article tells you how you can protect yourself from metadata issues in Microsoft Word and WordPerfect.


Metadata and Microsoft Word

By Donna Payne

Would it surprise you to learn that you can uncover electronic trails in your computer that allow you to track information such as the last ten authors of or contributors to a document, the full path to a file location in another computer, deleted text, and other information that could be deemed confidential, privileged or otherwise detrimental to your client’s position in a given matter? If you share Word documents electronically, whether through e-mail or by saving to disks, invisible information called "metadata" travels unseen and hidden inside of your document, readily visible within seconds to anyone who knows where to look. Beyond metadata, other confidential information that could be extracted by clients, co-counsel, and the courts could lead to embarrassing and potentially damaging results.

Track changes. When you share the creation of documents with others in Word, common practice would suggest utilizing the Track Changes feature. As edits are made by each reviewer of the document, the program automatically records a history of each change. The program files that history, attaching it to the document. When active, the Track Changes option shows edits to the manuscript on screen; there is little chance of your sending the document without first having to accept or reject the changes. Turning the tracking display off makes it easy to send a file carrying the entire document history by mistake.

To check a document for this possibility, choose Track Changes/Highlight Changes from the Tools menu. The Highlight Changes dialog box contains three options: Track Changes While Editing, Highlight Changes on Screen, and Highlight Changes in Printed Document. Just checking the first option will not guarantee that changes are not marked in the document, because existing changes may not be displayed.

To check for hidden and undisplayed information: From the Tools menu, choose Track Changes/Highlight Changes and click OK. Make several edits to the document. Go back to the Tools menu, choose Track Changes/Highlight Changes, unselect both Track Changes While Editing and Highlight Changes on Screen, and click OK. The changes disappear; the Track Changes feature is turned off. If you return to the dialog box and reclick Highlight Changes on Screen, however, you’ll see the changes were buried in the document all along.

To accept or reject document changes, choose Track Changes/Accept or Reject Changes and follow the instructions in the dialog box.

Comments. If you’re in the habit of inserting comments into documents, be sure to remember that the name of the person making each comment is inserted into the document history. "The client is asking for $1.5 million but will probably accept $750,000," or "Janet, can you please look at this, I had a late night with Fred and can’t see straight" are examples of comments placed in documents that you probably would not want to share with others. All the same, using Tools/Options/User Information allows someone to find and read it.

Using the Comment feature is simple: Click Insert/Comment. If you alternate-click on a comment in the document and choose Delete Comment, you delete existing comments from a document. With only a little more effort, you can concurrently delete all comments from the document. Because Comments do not print, you must first turn on the display of non-printing characters on screen by clicking the Show/Hide button on the Standard toolbar (or by pressing Ctrl+Shift+8) until paragraph marks and all non-printing characters display on screen. Now that you can see the character marks, including comment marks, click Edit/Replace (or press Ctrl+H). Click More to expand the dialog box if necessary. Click Find What/Special/Comment Mark/Replace All, and you’re done.

Hidden Text. Word can also format text as hidden. The program will not display hidden text on screen. To display all hidden text in a document, choose Tools/Options/View/Display Hidden Text. Once you have displayed the text on the screen, you can go through and delete unwanted text, or use Find and Replace as described above to delete all hidden text at once.

Versions. If you use a document management system such as Worldox, iManage, or DocsOpen, chances are you will have some confusion with Word’s Version feature. Versions listed under the File menu do not relate to the document management system; it creates a new version of the document each time someone saves the document. Word’s Version feature keeps all versions in one document and does not generate versions for comparisons. If you select Versions in conjunction with the Automatically Save a Version on Close option, the document can mushroom out of control very quickly.

Document properties. Choosing Properties from the File menu displays five tab categories of properties within a document. At first glance they looks rather harmless; however, you will want to pay close attention to a few. One is the Title property under the Summary tab. After you create and save a document, Title automatically uses your first few words as the document title. If the information is later deleted, the Title property still retains the original title, so take care what you name working versions

Other properties under Summary that that you might want to set before sending out a document include Author, Manager, Company, and Comments. A rival company to my employer recently attempted to pass off as their own and sell a set of documents written by my employer—but they had neglected to check the Summary Properties that still contained our company’s originating documentation.

The Custom tab is worth checking out. Depending on how your firm uses custom options, a document thought "ready" for distribution may actually still contain client, matter, purpose, and firm properties that you may not want made public.

Templates. Lawyers generally do not create documents from scratch. Contracts serve as the basis for new contracts, as do proposals of service for new proposals, or pleadings, and so on. When this happens, metadata residing in the original file becomes part of the new document’s history, reviewable by people who have access to the new document in connection with the new matter.

Hyperlinks. Documents can contain links to other documents or to intranet or Internet sites. Hyperlinks often appear by default as blue underlined text. Hyperlinks can also hide in graphics copied from a Web page. To delete a hyperlink, alternate-click on the link and choose Hyperlink/Remove Hyperlink.

Graphics and embedded objects. When Word documents include imbedded graphics and objects, a link can remain that identifies where the object originated and the full path to where it resides. The field code linked to the object includes this information. This subject of how to find, replace, and modify links is too extensive to fully explain here.

Buried metadata. Some information can be removed only by using a third-party product. Such metadata often is buried in the binary file itself and can include names of document creators, storage information, editing time, and more.

Discover your own metadata. If a document becomes corrupt and unopenable as a Word document, you can often open the document to display the unformatted text. This same method works for viewing document metadata as well. To do this, choose File Menu/Open. If you use a document management system, navigate to the native Word Open dialog box. From the Files of Type drop-down list, select Recover Text from Any File/Open. The document opens without formatting. Scroll toward the end of the document, and you will likely find names of authors of the document and the file path for the computer that originated the document. This is how easy it is to uncover document metadata.

A word of warning: when you change the Files of Type option to Recover Text from Any File, the setting remains, and all subsequent documents opened will display without formatting. Be sure to change the Files of Type setting back to Word Document.

The good news about Word 2002. Microsoft has taken steps to eliminate metadata and the release of embedded information in Word 2002, which is scheduled to be released later this year. The Tools/Options choice will have a Security tab that will save or not save personal information with the document, or will prompt the user about hidden text before sending or printing documents that contain comments or tracked changes. Although Word 2002 may not remove all metadata, it will help strip a large portion of metadata from document files.

Removing metadata and file information. Several Microsoft knowledge base articles describe metadata buried in documents and explain how to remove it. Visit www.microsoft.com and click Support/ Knowledge Base, article number Q223790 (How to Minimize Metadata in Microsoft Word Documents).


Donna Payne is president and founder of Payne Consulting Group, a training and development company headquarted in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of nine books on Microsoft Office, including Word 2002 for Law Firms, Word 2000, and Word 97 for Law Firms, along with several books on Excel and Office. Payne Consulting Group offers a commercial metadata removal system called Metadata Assistant Enterprise.

Back to Top

< /