Sources of embarrassing information


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We take you through a few of the more common sources of unexpected information in Word documents.

Office Watch last week and again this week exposed all sorts of hidden information in Word documents posted on the Internet. I’ve heard from many of you, wondering how we got into this sorry mess in the first place.

There can be all sorts of potentially embarrassing information in DOC files – not all of it is personal information, and not all of the information is stored by Word. This week in Office for Mere Mortals I wanted to trace you through a few of the more common sources of unexpected info.

FAST SAVES

In the not-so-good old days, it could take a long, long time to save a Word DOC. (Still can, for that matter.) More than a decade ago, somebody at Microsoft hit upon a wonderful technological solution that’s a privacy advocate’s nightmare: Fast Saves. Instead of saving and re-saving the entire file every time you hit the Save button, using Fast Save would only save the changes to the previous version – the “deltas” to the file, if you will. The setting saved a lot of time… and caused more than a few red faces, when people discovered that it was easy to open a Fast Saved document with a text editor and read any deleted text, too.

If you have an even modestly modern PC (say, anything made since 1920 – or maybe even 1820), Fast Save creates many more problems than it solves. Turn it off. Click Tools | Options | Save and uncheck the box marked Allow Fast Saves.

To my mind, Fast Save is the prototypical whiz-bang Word “improvement” that simply wasn’t thought through. In the ensuing decade, Word has seen dozens – maybe hundreds – of ’em.

TRACK CHANGES

Most of you know that Word can be set up to keep track of changes. Many of you don’t know how to remove all reference to those changes prior to letting the DOC file out of your hands.

In the May 14, 2001 issue of the Wall Street Journal, an article called “How to Read Between the Corporate Lines” described an Ameritrade Holding Corp press release which was posted with tracked changes intact. WSJ: “in one draft, Ameritrade billed the March hiring of Mr. Moglia as one of the ‘right decisions’ the company made during a difficult second quarter. But his name ended up on the cutting-room floor, a thin blue line erasing him from the final version.” It mentions that “Analysts and investors looking at an earlier draft would have found a per-share, quarterly loss of 31 cents. But that, too, was crossed out and changed to a loss of 30 cents.” An Ameritrade spokeswoman brushed off the changes, saying “it is too bad–but on the other side of it, it is too bad that someone would think to turn the edits on.”

Excel can track changes, too.

Word 2002 (the version in Office XP) and 2003 can warn you when you save a document that contains tracked changes or comments (see the next section). I highly recommend that you enable this feature: click Tools | Options | Security and check the box marked Warn before printing, saving or sending a file that contains tracked changes or comments.

To get rid of all tracked changes in a Word document, right-click on any empty spot on any toolbar and check the box that says Reviewing. (In Word 2002 and 2003 you can alternatively click View | Markup.) From that point, you can look at each tracked change and decide whether to accept or reject each one individually. If you want to accept all the changes that have been made, on the Reviewing toolbar, click the down-arrow next to the “check” icon and pick Accept all Changes in Document. To reject all of them, click the down-arrow next to the “X” icon on the Reviewing toolbar and choose Reject All Changes in Document.

COMMENTS

Comments can drive ya nuts.

In a previous article we had two comments that snuck into the final issue. (Hey, we’re not perfect!) They showed up in the final version of the newsletter like this:

Alt+F, then X,

F9 updates all selected fields

As you probably guessed, we write the newsletters in Word, then convert the DOC file to text. Well, when Word converts a DOC file to text, it puts these stupid marks in where comments are anchored – as if anybody creating a text file would have the slightest interest in where a Word document was anchored. Blech.

Anyway, to get rid of comments in a document, follow the instructions in the preceding section to bring up the Reviewing toolbar, click the down-arrow next to the “X” icon, and choose Delete All Comments in Document.

VERSIONS

The document you’re working on may be set up to maintain multiple versions – either manually or automatically. Click File | Versions to find out: if there’s a list of Existing Versions, they’re all available to anybody who has the DOC file.

To save a single version of the file, click File | Versions and open the version you want to save. Click File | Save As and give the DOC file a new name. That new file will only include the version that you selected.

GETTING RID OF ALL OF IT

That just touches the surface of potentially embarrassing information that can be stored in a Word DOC. In previous issues of Office Watch and Office for Mere Mortals I’ve talked about File Properties settings, stuff tacked on by Outlook, and the lists maintained internally in your documents.

If you want to work at cleaning your documents, I still strongly recommend Frank Rice’s article.

On the other hand, if you want to buy a package that’ll do all the heavy lifting for you, check out Metadata Assistant. It works with Word and Excel 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003, and it takes out everything I know about. There are options to reach into the document and retrieve hidden data, and/or strip it clean. $79 and worth every penny, from Payne Consulting Group.

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