Is hidden data in your files compromising your privacy?

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Many of us have a funny (or embarrassing!) story about sending documents with information showing that we never meant for the recipient to see. Sometimes the wrong version of a file gets sent, or Microsoft Word’s “track changes” feature is left turned on, with reviewers’ comments displayed in the margins.

But mishaps like these can be more than embarrassing. They can compromise your efforts at confidentiality and, in rare cases, have adverse legal consequences. Plus, there may be more hidden information carried in your document than you realize. Even if you haven’t collaborated with anyone to add changes and comments or create different versions of your documents, word processing programs automatically attach metadata to each and every file. Metadata includes information such as the author of a file and the date when it was created, as well as the name of the person who most recently saved it. This means, among other things, that if you use someone else’s file as a “template” – even if you change the title and all of the file’s content – the original author’s name will be attached as metadata.

The document’s location on your computer, or its file path, is also commonly stored as metadata. Excel and PowerPoint files allow for hidden cells and off-slide information that can be forgotten by the file author, only to be discovered later by the file recipient. Fortunately, there are ways to find and eliminate hidden data in your files. Recent versions of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint have a “Document Inspector” feature that can be accessed by clicking the “File” tab and navigating to the “Info” screen. Running the inspector is just a matter of following the prompts. The Microsoft Office support website offers further instruction as well as details on what kind of metadata can be removed. It should be noted that converting your file to a pdf, which has become a common way of preserving document formatting, does not automatically strip it of metadata (although Acrobat Pro will allow you to remove the metadata manually).

Reach out to AOE for more advice on how to keep your company’s communications ‘clean.’  

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