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September 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 6| Page 24
TECHNOLOGY

Feature

Now You See It, Now You Don't: Removing Hidden Data from Microsoft Office 2007 Documents

Your day is hectic, and each new moment it seems there’s another priority document you have to get out by e-mail. But before pushing the Send button on that attachment, protect your clients and your firm by removing hidden details, text and personal information.

Legal professionals know they need to review their documents for accuracy before they share them with clients, colleagues, the courts or others. But many aren’t aware that they could be missing hidden information or sensitive comments about the client or the case—the kinds of things that are not intended for a broader audience. How can you make certain that your documents are truly ready to share? Microsoft Office 2007 includes several features designed to help legal professionals perform with greater efficiency while at the same time controlling risks.

Here’s an overview of the types of unseen information that present risks—and how to find and remove hidden data and personal information with the Document Inspector feature in Microsoft Office Word 2007, Office Excel 2007 and Office PowerPoint 2007.

 

What Lurks Beneath the Surface?

Several types of hidden data and personal information can be saved in an Office document. This information might not be immediately visible when you view the document on screen, but it might be possible for other people to retrieve and see the information—which could cause all kinds of headaches for your firm.

Generally, there are two categories of hidden information: (1) data that Office programs add to a file to enable collaboration on writing and editing, and (2) information that you deliberately designate as hidden. The following are examples.

▪ If you collaborated with other lawyers or your client to create a document, it might contain items such as revision marks from tracked changes, comments, ink annotations or prior -versions of the file. This information can enable others to see the names of the people who worked on your document, what changes were made to it along the way, and reviewer comments that may have been intended “for your eyes only.”

▪ Document properties—also known as metadata—include details such as document author, subject and title, as well as information automatically maintained by Office programs, such as the date the document was created and the name of the person who most recently saved the file. In addition, if you used specific features, your document might contain additional kinds of personally identifiable information (PII). This term refers to any information that can be used to identify someone, such as a name, street address, e-mail address, government I.D., IP address or any unique identifier associated with PII in another program, such as e-mail headers, routing slips and file-path information for publishing Web pages.

▪ Word documents and Excel workbooks can contain information hidden in headers and footers. In addition, you may have added a watermark to your Word document. Word documents can also contain text that is formatted as hidden text.

▪ In an Excel workbook, rows, columns and entire worksheets can be hidden. If you distribute a copy of a workbook that contains hidden rows, columns or worksheets, recipients could unhide them and view the data that they contain.

▪ PowerPoint presentations and Excel workbooks can contain objects that are not visible because they are formatted as invisible.

▪ PowerPoint presentations may contain objects that are not immediately visible because they were dragged into the off-slide area. Off-slide content can include text boxes, clip art, graphics and tables.

▪ The Notes section of a PowerPoint presentation can contain text that you might not want to share publicly, especially if the notes were written solely for the use of the person delivering the presentation.

▪ If your file was saved to a location on your firm’s document management server, such as a Document Workspace site or a library based on Microsoft Office SharePoint Services, it might contain additional document properties or information related to that server location.

▪ In addition, documents can contain custom XML data that is not visible in the document itself.

So how do you find and remove these various types of information from your document? The solution is to use Office 2007’s Document Inspector feature.

 

How to Use the Document Inspector

The Document Inspector is located in the upper-left-hand Office Button. Note that some of these inspectors are specific to individual Office programs, with unique inspectors in Office Word 2007, Office Excel 2007 and Office PowerPoint 2007, for example. Each enables you to find and remove hidden information that is specific to each program, as well as earlier versions of the given Office application.

Caution: It’s a good idea to use the Document Inspector on a copy of your original document because it isn’t always possible to restore the data that the Document Inspector removes—even by clicking “Undo.”

Now, here’s how to proceed. Before you share an electronic copy of your document, via e-mail or otherwise, follow these steps:

1. Open the Office document that you want to inspect.

2. Click on the Microsoft Office Button, click on Save As, and then type a name in the file name box to save a copy of your original document.

3. In the copy of your original document, click on the Microsoft Office button, point to Prepare, and click on Inspect Document.

4. In the Document Inspector dialog box, select the appropriate checkboxes to choose the types of hidden content that you want to be inspected. (For more information about the individual inspectors, type the following in the Help menu: “What information can the Document Inspector find and remove?”)

5. Click on Inspect.

6. Review the results of the inspection in the Document Inspector dialog box.

7. Click on Remove All next to the inspection results for the types of hidden content that you want to remove from your document.

A note about working in Excel. The inspectors for Comments and Annotations, Document Properties and Personal Information, and Headers and Footers cannot be used in an -Excel workbook that has been saved as a shared workbook (which is set up via the Review tab, Shared Workbook command). This is because shared workbooks necessarily use personal information to enable different people to collaborate on the same workbook. To remove this information from a shared workbook, you can copy the workbook and then unshare it with the following steps: On the Review tab, click on Shared Workbook. On the Editing tab, clear the checkbox that reads “Allow changes by more than one user at the same time.”

 

How to Make It Final

Lastly, after removing hidden comments and other unwanted information, you may want to take additional steps to finalize a document’s content before publishing it, so that different people reading or reusing the document can’t inadvertently make changes to the content. This is especially valuable for documents that are electronically filed with the courts. To help ensure your documents are viewed in exactly the way you intend your audience to view them, Office Word 2007 includes a Mark As Final feature.

By marking a document as final, you make the contents “read-only.” For example, once a pleading is signed and filed, you would mark it as “final” to prevent changes from accidentally being made by people who wish to reuse the document. Choosing Mark As Final also removes editing artifacts from a document, such as grammar checking or spell checking, that may not be necessary or appropriate for your readers to see. This is a simple, easy protection to add to a document—and it’s reversible. If you need to return to the document for editing, you can disable the feature to restart grammar checking, spell checking and other editing operations.

Deploying these Office features can keep you (and your firm) out of trouble when you share your documents.

For more information, download the free white paper on “Office Word 2007 for the Legal Community.”

About the Author

Brian D. Zeve is Managing Director, Professional Services Industry, Microsoft Corporation, and leads Microsoft’s sales and services efforts for the legal industry.

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