Microsoft Word's invisible treasure trail

Microsoft Word's invisible treasure trail

If you use Microsoft Word, you may be leaving bread crumbs of your edits all over those reports and memos without realizing it. That's no big deal when helping your fifth-grader type a book report, but it could cause blushing and worse at work. Little known to casual users, buried "metadata" within Microsoft Word tracks your work and the changes you make. A file's metadata displays its author and editors, company of origin, comments, and when it was opened and edited.

Horror stories about the hidden coding surface every so often. Last year a member of the American Bar Association found that a Microsoft document touting the superiority of Office was purportedly written with QuarkExpress on a Mac. As the New York Times reports, the latest flap over "the DNA of documents" has politicians and pundits seeing vivid shades of red and blue over who crafted a critique of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito.

Therefore, if you're dealing with sensitive content, don't hastily send an outside party your original Word file--unless you want that client to peek within the invoice and see how you raised the rates. And think twice before letting an angry colleague borrow your computer; their critique of company policy could make you look like the author. Check your metadata settings in Word 2003 by going to Tools—Options and clicking the Security tab. See Microsoft's support Web site for detailed protection against revealing more than you intended.

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