Most of the folks who use Word have no idea that Word is a leaky ship.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Need privacy? Don't post Word documents online

April 25, 2010

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, The Post-Standard

   Microsoft says 400 million people use Microsoft Word. This has to make Word the most widely used word processor since the invention of the pencil.
   Unfortunately, most of the folks who use Word -- let's say 399.99 million for a good guess -- have no idea that Word is a leaky ship ready to share their secrets with the world. That this is a serious problem and not just a quirk is evident from the many revelations that have embarrassed politicians around the world when journalists found incriminating material hidden in otherwise normal Word documents.
   (One that may have wrecked a political career was the discovery of damaging information in an official Word document relating to Tony Blair's decision to lead Britain to war in Iraq in 2003. For more on this, go to www.computerbytesman.com/privacy/blair.htm.)
   Word stores hidden material when tracking changes to a document. If you were writing a book, instead of deleting half a chapter on Millie's college fling, you could simply use a menu option to hide the text. Then, if your publisher complains that you should have included more juicy material on Millie, you could simply press a few keys and restore that whole portion of the novel.
   What you might not know -- and what I'm sure most of those 400 million Word users haven't a clue about -- is that the Word document you sent to the publisher already has that hidden text in it. The top honcho at the publishing house could restore that portion herself.
   In other words, anything that's hidden in a Word document is actually still in the document. And "hidden" doesn't just mean paragraphs you didn't like. Word even stores a hidden list of the last 10 individuals who opened each document and made any revisions. Each PC used in revising a Word document can be traced using hidden data.
   Whew! How can you fight back?
   There are three ways to strip hidden material out of Word documents:
      Save the Word document as a standard kind of file, using the "Save As" function in the File menu. The two choices that work best are RTF and Text. (Am I looney? Isn't Word's "DOC" format a standard kind of file? Not on your life. Microsoft won't even disclose how the DOC format works.)
      If the document has a lot of pictures and fancy formatting, save it as a PDF. Newer versions of Word have that option in the File menu. For older versions, go to www.doc2pdf.net and save to a PDF online. (It's free.)
      If you're merely going to send a Word document by e-mail, don't waste your time (and the time of the recipient, who has to wrestle with Word just to read your attachment). Select everything in the Word document (hint: press Ctrl-A on a PC or Cmd-A on a Mac to copy) and paste the clipboard contents into the e-mail message. (Another hint: Press Ctrl-V on a PC or Cmd-V on a Mac to paste).
   How do you check for hidden text? Run Word. Choose File, then Open. In the dropdown menu, choose Recover Text from Any File and select the file you want to check.