The modern world is continuously finding new ways to incorporate technology into its working pattern. This may increase productivity and reduce costs, but users are unaware of the risks they are putting themselves (and their firms) under when sending correspondence electronically.
Whenever a document is created, opened, or saved content that the user may not want to share with others is stored. This information is called metadata and it is used to enhance the editing, viewing, filing, and retrieval of documents.
Examples of Metadata
The metadata in a document can be the user’s name (and the names of previous authors), user initials, firm name, computer name, the network server or hard drive and other file properties such as summary information.
Metadata is not exhaustive to document properties though, another example is when the Ctrl + Z (or Undo) function is performed in WordPerfect. Metadata records what has been reversed.
The more damaging examples of metadata include the tracking of hidden text, previous author’s revisions, comments, and template information. This is particularly common practice for law firms who send documents electronically between parties several times, each time accumulating more and more revisions which are being tracked as metadata.
Metadata also records the changes made within the document’s content and through the Word track changes feature until the changes have been accepted. As a result these recorded details could be read by an opposing solicitor, or third party privy to that particular document.
Microsoft online gives further details about how to control metadata in legal documents.
To view the metadata in a Word document, open the document, select the File menu and click Properties.
The General tab contains information about when and where the document was saved while the Summary tab displays author and title information. The Statistics tab provides information on how long the document is and how much total time was spent editing it.
If the document is being viewed in Microsoft Word 2007, select the Office button, click Prepare then select Properties. In place of a dialog box a panel will appear at the top of the document with a drop down arrow next to Document Properties, this leads to the advanced features.
Removing Metadata and Reducing the Problem
Metadata can be removed by opening a document in a low-level binary file editor (a tool that methodically examines the structure of files used by individuals with advanced IT know-how).
Microsoft Word 2007 includes a new feature called Inspect Documents, which can be accessed by going to the Office button, selecting Prepare and Inspect Document. From here the user can customise, review and remove the document’s hidden text and other metadata accordingly.
Microsoft Online also gives further details on the Inspect Document feature in Word 2007
A simple way to reduce the risk from the beginning is to convert the documents into a .pdf format (which are opened in Adobe Acrobat), prior to sending the document via email.
Even though metadata is included in most programs it proves to be the biggest problem in Microsoft Word due to the popularity of the program and the magnitude of its use. Almost every file has some metadata. Other applications like Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint and Adobe Acrobat will write some metadata to files created within that program, and much of the same file data contained in a Word document is also present in WordPerfect documents.
Metadata is intended to be helpful. The risk is at its highest when a document is revised and sent back and forth electronically between parties. If the document was to be discovered by an undesired user, then that person could potentially have access to information that could be used as damaging evidence.
As metadata is not widely known amongst general computer users the level of danger is not as high as it could be, but it is still present. Metadata can be a mystery to understand and is often intimating to users who do not have a strong grasp of IT (even IT professionals sometimes have problems understanding it). However taking proper precautions and attending suitable training will prevent any potential future confidentiality breaches when sending documents electronically.