Last week, a company I worked with e-mailed me a contract and a cover memo explaining the contract’s terms in plain English. Both documents were in Word document (.doc) format. What the sender didn’t know was that the cover memo contained some comments, written by various people as the document went through the approval process. When I opened it in Word 2007, the comments appeared in the margin, giving me an insight the sender never intended for me to have. (The default settings for all Office 2007 programs automatically display hidden comments and tracked changes whenever you open or save a document.)
In this case, the damage was minimal. In fact, I worked with the folks involved to get the document scrubbed so that they wouldn’t be embarrassed the next time they sent it to a potential contractor. But with a more sensitive negotiation or a less friendly relationship, the consequences could have been catastrophic. So I thought it might be useful to share the details with you so you can avoid potentially embarrassing or incriminating yourself with a document you create.
The problem arises when you work with an Office document that has the Track Changes feature turned on, or when someone inserts a comment into the document. It’s possible to hide the tracked changes and comments, so that you’re blissfully unaware of their existence. Until someone like me discovers them, that is. And there are other places where personal information can lurk as well.
One way to avoid problems is to “scrub” a document manually. For step-by-step instructions on how to get rid of tracked changes and comments, see this article at Microsoft’s Office Online site: Get rid of tracked changes and comments, once and for all.
For an even more detailed article covering all possible types of personal information that can be stored in Office formats, see Protecting Personal Data in Your Word 2003 Documents. This article is written from a developer’s point of view, but it’s still refreshingly readable.
The trouble with these manual solutions, however, is that they require that you go through a fairly cumbersome set of steps every time you save a document or send it via e-mail. That’s why I recommend installing the Remove Hidden Data add-in if you use Office 2003 or Office XP on a PC. (Sorry, Mac Office users, you’re left out on this one.) With this add-in installed, you get a new Remove Hidden Data option on the File menu. This allows you to save a copy of the original document with all personal information removed. It’s a one-way operation – when you’re done, the original information is irrevocably removed - so you should do this only when the document has completed the review cycle. (At which point you could also consider converting it to PDF format, making it easier for people to read.)
If you use Office 2007, you don’t need an add-in, because the capability to find and remove personal information is built into all Office 2007 programs. From the Office menu, choose Prepare, Inspect Document. This opens the following dialog box:
You can choose which types of information you want to look for, and when the inspection is complete you get the option to remove anything that’s found in that category.
Even better: Open the Trust Center (Office menu, Word Options, Trust Center tab, Trust Center Settings button). In the Trust Center, choose Privacy Options and select Warn before printing, saving or sending a file that contains tracked changes or comments.
This option is off by default. When you turn it on, the setting applies to all future documents you create, and you significantly reduce the likelihood that you’ll make this mistake again. If you try to save a document that contains comments or tracked changes, you’ll see a warning like this one:
If you’re looking for a legitimate reason to upgrade to Office 2007, this is one of the best.