Three simple ways to stop people changing your Word documents

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Word, Excel and PowerPoint have options to stop people from changing a document, making them ‘read only’ in tech speak.   These options protect your documents from unauthorized editing or even reading them at all.

There are different levels of protection, they are all under File | Info | Protect Document.  While they are mostly talked about and used in Word, the same options are in Excel and PowerPoint.

Office for Mac:  Two of these features are available in Office for Mac.  ‘Mark as Final’ can’t be set in Office for Mac but you’ll see the same warning if opening a ‘Final’ document made in Office for Windows.

Always Open Read-Only

This is the most basic level of protection, as it doesn’t actually stop anyone from accessing or even editing the document.   File | Info | Protect Document | Always Open Read-Only.

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Office for Mac: go to Review | Protect | Always Open as Read-only.

All this option does is pop up an alert when the document is opened, saying that the author would prefer that you open the document as read-only.

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The reader can still click No if they want to, in which case they can edit the document as much as they like.

Even if they click Yes and open the document as read-only, they can still make changes to it; they just can’t save the changed document to the same location with the same file name. If you are sending a document around by email, there is nothing to stop them changing the document, saving it in a new location, and then sending on the changed document with the same file name.

As you can see, this option does not protect your document at all and should only be used when you trust everyone who is accessing the document. It’s there to stop people accidentally making changes without thinking.   It’s a relatively new Word option, after being requested for many years before that.

Mark as Final

Another fairly new Word option is ‘Mark as Final’.

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When you have finished editing your document and want to alert readers that this is the final version of the document, click the Mark as Final option. You will then see a couple of alerts that you need to confirm.

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“This document has been marked as final to indicate that editing is complete and that this is the final version of the document.

When a document is marked as final, the status property is set to “Final” and typing, editing commands, and proofing marks are turned off. You can recognize that a document is marked as final when the Mark as Final icon displays in the status bar”

Once this has been done, the Content Status of the document in Explorer will show as Final.

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The next time someone opens the document, they will see a message saying that the document is final, and none of the editing options will be available.

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As you can see, there is a button to enable the user to ‘ Edit Anyway’, so like the Always Open Read Only option, this is really just a heads up for the person opening the document, not a failsafe security measure.

If they then choose to edit the document and save it, the Final indicator will be removed from the document’s content status, and they will then be listed as the last person to have saved the file.

Office for Mac: can’t mark a document as ‘Final’ (maybe with VBA).  Documents tagged a ‘Final’ elsewhere will be opened with the warning and ‘Edit Anyway’ option.

Encrypt with Password

This is the option to use if you want to stop unauthorized persons from viewing the document at all.

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Office for Mac: go to Review | Protect | Protect Document. When you click this option, a pop-up will appear for you to set the password. You will need to enter the password twice.

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There is no way to recover the password if you forget it, so make sure you have some kind of system for tracking your document passwords.

Now, whenever someone tries to open this document, they will be prompted for the password and will not be able to even view the document until they enter it.

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Note also that this is an all-or-nothing option – once the user has opened the document with the password, they can edit it as well as view it.

If you later want to remove the password, it is not immediately obvious how to do so, but it is actually quite simple. Simply go through the same steps as to set the password, but when it brings up the dialog to set the password, simply clear the password field and click OK. The next time you open the document, you won’t need a password anymore.

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Our ebook Beating Bots, Spies & Cock-ups – Safely & securely send files and documents goes into a lot more detail about password locking documents and safely sending them around.


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