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Microsoft patches Office privacy hole

Under pressure from privacy advocates, Microsoft makes good on its promise to patch its Office 97 software suite which removes information collected on document authors.

Under pressure from privacy advocates, Microsoft has made good on its promise to provide a patch for its Office 97 software suite which removes information collected on document authors.

As reported earlier, Microsoft software applications such as Word and Excel, generate unique identification numbers that include information about users' personal computers and the individual who registered the software. Privacy advocates argue that the information could be intercepted by those with nefarious intent.

Microsoft has posted the patch removal tool to its Web site. The tool allows customers to remove the unique identifier number from existing documents, and prevent the insertion of a unique identifier in any new documents.

The Microsoft Office 97 Unique Identifier Patch, once applied, will prevent the insertion of a unique identifier number in all new Office documents, Microsoft said.

In addition, the Microsoft Office 97 Unique Identifier Removal Tool is a utility that can be used to remove the unique identifier from previously created Office 97 documents. Users who are concerned about the presence of the unique identifier number can run the utility against one or several documents at a time, the company said.

Although Microsoft has posted the Office 97 patch, the company is sticking by its claims that the Windows glitch and the desktop productivity applications suite are not related.

"In this case, it has led to rumors that the information gathered in the Windows registry is somehow related, or could be related, to Office 97 Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents."

"The unique identifier number inserted into Office 97 documents was designed to help third parties build tools to work with and reference Office 97 documents," Yusuf Mehdi, director of Windows marketing, wrote in a letter posted to Microsoft's Web site.

The unique identifier generated for Office 97 documents contains information that is derived in part from a network card, not from an individual user's identity, and thus, Mehdi wrote, it is not possible to reliably determine the author of a document.

"The unique identifier number has not been widely used by third parties and in light of customer privacy concerns, Microsoft has decided to help customers remove the identifier," he insisted.

The forthcoming release of Office 2000 will not include the ability to insert unique identifier numbers in documents, the company said.