Tips on avoiding metadata mistakes

Issue June 2006 By Keith M. Survell

Avoiding “copy and paste” creation of new documents can help keep sensitive information out of documents. If you use a document assembly program to create your documents, you’re even better off, as each document is created “cleanly” from a template that has no personal information in it.

Many of the options to save hidden data are turned on by default in most word processors, but they are options and can thus be turned off. Here are some tips on how to turn these options off for users of Microsoft Word:

Turn off “Fast Saves”

To turn off this option, click the “Tools” menu and choose “Options.” Then, click on the “Save” tab and un-check the box labeled “Allow Fast Saves.”

Remove “Hidden” Information

To stop Word from saving information about who has created or modified a document, click on the “Tools” menu and choose “Options.” Then, click on the “Security” tab and check off every box under the heading “Privacy Options.” This will stop some information from being saved, as well as give you warning when you are saving a document that contains other information (such as tracked changes).

Turn off “Versioning”

Word’s Versioning feature saves multiple copies of your document, providing a history of all the changes that have been made to it. Before you send a document to someone, you should check to make sure that you don’t have any saved versions hidden in the document. To do this, click the “File” menu and choose “Versions.” In the dialog box which appears, click on any versions which appear and click “Delete.”

Don’t use Highlighting to

Redact Information

If you are going to send a document to someone else and you want to hide sensitive information (such as Social Security Numbers), you shouldn’t use the black “highlight” feature in Word to redact the information. Instead, delete the information and replace it with something else, such as “xxx-xx-xxxx.” This will ensure that no one will be able to extract the hidden data beneath the highlighting. This method is especially useful when converting a document to PDF.

Beware of “Track Changes”

The “Track Changes” feature is wonderful for collaborating with other users and when many people need to make changes to a document that is then reviewed by someone else. However, if turned on inadvertently, the Track Changes feature can save all of the edits and changes you have made to a document — which will then be visible to whomever you send the document. Turning off the Track Changes feature doesn’t remove the information, either — it’s still there, it’s just not shown onscreen.

To get rid of tracked changes and comments, you need to accept or reject the changes and delete the comments. Here’s how:

1. On the View menu, point to Toolbars, and then click Reviewing.

2. On the Reviewing toolbar, click Show, and then make sure that a check mark appears next to each of the following items:

• Comments

• Ink Annotations (Word 2003 only)

• Insertions and Deletions

• Formatting

• Reviewers (Point to Reviewers and make sure that All Reviewers is selected.)

If a check mark does not appear next to an item, click the item to select it.

3. On the Reviewing toolbar, click Next to advance from one revision or comment to the next.

4. On the Reviewing toolbar, click Accept Change or Reject Change/Delete Comment for each revision or comment.

5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until all the revisions in the document have been accepted or rejected and all the comments have been deleted.

Convert Documents to PDF

In addition to all of the steps above, converting a document to PDF is one of the best ways to prevent sensitive information from being inadvertently disclosed to other parties. You can purchase Adobe’s Acrobat product to convert documents to PDF easily, or you can find several basic (but free) PDF-creating packages on the Internet.

Keith M. Survell is the senior IT manager and director of software development for TurboLaw Software.