Protecting Confidential Data

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07Nov2011

Protecting Confidential Data

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protecting confidential dataLife entails a constant interplay and compromise between the competing issues of convenience, speed and security. Legislatures, for example, have decided that 65 miles per hour is an adequate middle ground between how fast someone would like to drive and the safer, but inconvenient ten miles per hour. Medicines now come with hard-to-open “safety caps;” people take the time to put on seat belts and travelers submit to airport security checks. All these actions are troublesome, but safe.

In the last few years, Microsoft Word has replaced WordPerfect as the most common word processor used by the legal profession. Word contains a lot of extra features that allow users to collaborate, add graphics and e-mail documents. But these features also open up security holes that can result in inadvertent breaches of client confidences, or disclosing unwanted data to opposing counsel when sending the file by e-mail or putting it on a disk such as when filing an electronic brief.

Microsoft Word, as well as other programs that are contained in the Microsoft Office suite, contains data that is not normally visible on the screen. This data can include such items as:

  • The author’s name, initials, mailing address, manager’s name and firm name as well as the names of any earlier authors.
  • Comments made by other members of the firm during the review/revision process, including who made the comments.
  • Any revisions made to the document.
  • Earlier versions of the document.
  • Template information.
  • Where the document is stored.
  • Template information.
  • Any text formatted as “hidden”.
  • Hyperlinks to other documents in the firm’s computer system.
  • Who the document was sent to for review or approval.

When a document created with Word is sent electronically to another person, that person can access this data. Revisions, for example, may be visible when the recipient opens the document using an e-mail program rather than saving the document and then opening it up with a word processor. Some of this data can also be seen by opening up the document using a program called a text editor. Two text editors, called WordPad and Notepad, come with Windows. Other data requires greater computer expertise to obtain, but is there nonetheless.

To see some of the additional data your documents contain, try opening them up with WordPad or Notepad. In Windows 98, click on the “Start” menu and navigate to “Programs” and then “Accessories” where you will find both programs listed. Open either one, and then use it to open up a Word document. Another test is to send yourself a Word document as an e-mail attachment and open it up in the e-mail program. Neither of these tests will show all of the data that is included with the file, so if you don’t see anything extra it doesn’t mean it’s not there. But you should see at least some of the extra data that is being sent along using one of these methods.

Preserving Confidentiality There are several methods which will reduce or eliminate the chance of passing along unwanted data. The first is to not send Word files electronically. Print it out and either send a hard copy, fax it or scan the document and save it in another format. These methods completely eliminate the hidden data.

If you want to stay with Word, there are still ways to reduce the amount of hidden data. One method to use, before e-mailing a document, is to open it up and copy and paste the information into a new, blank Word document, and then send the new document along. Doing this will eliminate the revisions, comments and earlier versions of the document.

Another approach is to save it in Rich Text Format (.rtf). Doing this preserves all the fonts and formatting, while removing some of the hidden data. To do this click on File, SaveAs and in the “Save as type” box, select Rich Text Format.

Many other ways to minimize the hidden data are explained in documents on Microsoft’s website. Start with Knowledge Base Article Q223396 “How to Minimize Metadata in Microsoft Office Documents“. This article contains links to other articles giving step-by-step instructions for the specific version of Word, Excel or PowerPoint that you are using.

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