Beware of Track Changes in Word…

♫ Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light…♫

Lyrics by Francis Scott Key (who was a lawyer), music by John Stafford Smith.

Lawyers today are concerned about metadata and not transmitting same to another lawyer or their own client when they electronically send a document.

Most of us use “Track Changes” in Microsoft Word when working on a document to note the changes/additions/deletions done by others. Once that process is over, the typical next step is to agree to the changes in the document to produce a non-red-lined version ( or ‘clean copy’) as it is known.

Speaking for myself, the way that I usually do this is by clicking on ‘accept all changes’ – and then saving the document – thinking that this turned off track changes and revered the document to an ordinary Word document. By way of further security, we can use a metadata removal tool (such as Payne Consulting’s Metadata Assistant) or by converting the Word document to a PDF.

Just the other day I finished collaborating on a Word document… accepted all changes…. saved it… and sent the ‘clean copy’ to my collaborating colleagues — one of which was just down the hall. She said to me: “Why did you send me a version still showing all the tracked changes? I thought you were sending out a clean copy?”

I looked at her screen and indeed — what was displaying was the ‘tracked changes’ version. I immediately went back to my desk, opened the document, ensured that ‘accept all changes’ had been done, re-saved the document and emailed it again… only to see that a red-lined version was again open on her desktop.

I then went looking on the Internet and found a Microsoft web site that speaks to this issue. It advises:

If you know that you want to accept all the changes, click the arrow next to Accept Change, and then click Accept All Changes in Document. If you know that you want to reject all the changes, click the arrow next to Reject Change/Delete Comment, and then click Reject All Changes in Document. To remove all comments, you must delete them. Click the arrow next to Reject Change/Delete Comment, and then click Delete All Comments in Document.

The only problem with this advice from Microsoft is that in my case, it didn’t work. My colleague should have only seen any comments in the document that had not yet been deleted. Instead, she saw all of the track changes, notwithstanding that I had ‘accepted all changes’ and then saved the document.

This brought home to me that the only reliable way to ensure that the tracked changes cannot be read is by using a metadata removal tool (such as Payne Consulting’s Metadata Assistant) or by converting the ‘clean copy’ to a PDF.

Anything else and someone may be able to see your changes by the dawn’s early light…

Comments

  1. I’ve had this problem, too. I thought it had something to do with creating a file on a Mac and then sending it to a Windows machine, but I’m not sure about that.

    I think it might also have something to do with transferring files between different versions of Windows, but these are totally just theories.

    Good to know that metadata removal tools exist though! I’ll file that tidbit of info away for future use.

  2. Office 2007 has a “prepare” command that has a tool to inspect for and remove metadata. I use that often just before sending a document out.

  3. Chris Bumgarner

    Now lets not keep perpetuating the myth that pdf files are somehow “metadata proof.” The pdf format is an extremely complex format, with lots of little nooks and crannies where information can hide. Printing or exporting word processing documents usually takes most of the metadata with it. I’d much rather avoid pdf files and use ODF files that have fewer places to hide.

    Chris

  4. Adam:

    While I work on both a Mac and on a PC, in this case the Word document was totally created (and emailed) using a PC.

    I don’t believe it was due to differing versions of Word – my colleague and I are in the same office and our IT dept upgraded everyone last year – we are on XP and the latest version of MS Office..

    Cheers,

    Dave

  5. Francis Barragan

    I have never encountered this but I will be careful, thanks for the tip.

    I wish there was a crash course of MSWord/Office specific for the law profession (maybe there is one that I have not seen). Some functions, like cross-referencing are tailor-made for this profession, and I’m sure most people do not know about it. I’m sure I don’t know half of what could be useful when reviewing a document.

  6. Salut/Hello Mr. David Bilinsky,

    Good article.

    I haven’t seen this mentioned by any of your commentators so I’ll give it a shot.

    I found this tool at Microsoft that works for 2003 to version XP of Office. Apparently Office version 2007 has something else built in to help with metadata removal (as David Canton mentioned).

    Please see:
    http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyId=144E54ED-D43E-42CA-BC7B-5446D34E5360&displaylang=en

    The above MS link will bring you to the “Office 2003/XP Add-in: Remove Hidden Data” tool, which you can download. Please read the directions of it before just blinding using it ;)

    Also see this link as a reference:
    http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/help/HA011400341033.aspx

    I started using it a while back. I actually found the link to this on the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s website. :)

    Give it a shot and do a follow-up (if you have the time) to compare the tools you and/or others are using.

    While writing this I did a quick search and found that there are server level software applications that strip all metadata before going through the gateway to the internet. For a law firm, or you lawyery types with oodles on money ;), this might also be a firm-wide solution to take so that no leaks comes from anyone inside your firm. Consider it as privacy security to add to your arsenal of other security packages.

    In addition to the above, there are also Email add-ons that strip metadata prior to sending attachments.

    Metadata can give lots of info away that is ripe for using by others ;)

    Anyhow, give that MS tool a shot. It’s free. Please do a follow-up. I love articles related to privacy, and this is one of them.

  7. Rob Perelli-Minetti

    I’ve been using Word since version 1.1 for Windows and track changes since it was introduced. I have never had a problem with the tracked changes being visible when I didn’t want them to be.

    Perhaps the order you deal with your changes matters. What I have done for some 15 years or so is to first save the document with the tracked changes in it as a new document with ‘clean’ in the name. I still have the old document with the changes (which can be shown as \marked\ if you wish). I then accept or reject the changes and save that document.

    I always make sure I look through a clean document with the reviewing pane on and I always have any comments or insertions or deletions displayed in line, rather than as balloons, so my documents look like a traditional legal ‘redline’ from the old days of strikethroughs (or elipses) and underlines.

    An interesting problem is when you do want to show all the changes from several people, but you don’t want the other side to know who made which comment (a conclusion I came to after getting lots of documents which showed who made which comment in the reviewing pane. In that case you can go into the track changes Options and make all the changes the same color, rather than different colors by author.

    You can further have your assistant go through the document you’re sending as a marked copy and with each change first copy it, then reject the change, then redo it. It’s time consuming, but you end up with all of the changes showing one (clerical) author.

  8. Frances Barragan’s comment wished for a crash course in MS Word for Lawyers. Such courses are offered. Barron Henley of Affinity Consulting Group does periodic one-hour webinars devoted to various MS Word topics. For example, he has a webinar devoted to the use of Styles in Word later today. The webinars are offered through Affinity University. Disclosure: I edit the Affinity Consulting Group’s monthly email newsletter.

  9. Perhaps of further interest: the [US] National Constitution Center ran a ‘webinar’ earlier last week that covered this topic as well as (i) the mechanics of electronic redaction and (ii) ethical considerations for both the senders and receivers of documents containing inadvertent disclosure of metadata: ‘Wipe Out Metadata: A Step- By-Step Guide for Keeping Confidentiality‘.
    On the anecdotal front, my own experiences with ‘track changes’ mirror those described by Rob. The problems reported by David and Adam might just as plausibly be explained as classic cases of mistaken document identity, rather than failures of ‘track changes’. E.g., the user accidentally modifies a copy of a document that has already been appended to an email, rather than the actual saved file, or vice versa. (Many commonly-used email programs create their own temporary working copies of attachments.)