By now, lawyers should be well aware that the information contained in word processing documents is not limited to what can be seen on a printout. Hidden metadata and personal information, such as the user’s name and how long he or she has been working on a document, document version dates, tracked changes, revision histories, deleted comments, and more, are routinely saved to files in office products such as Microsoft Word.
On one hand, such information can be very useful for lawyers and other staff members in their firms and organizations to have access to, especially when a document has multiple versions or collaborators. On the other, it is easy to imagine how the exposure of such details – to opposing counsel, the courts, or the public in general – could result in situations that are not only embarrassing, but could be damaging to clients.
Tison Rhine is the advisor to the State Bar of Wisconsin Law Office Management Assistance Program (Practice411™). Reach him at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6012, or by email.
This is especially true in Wisconsin, where it is up to the sender of a document to prevent the disclosure of significant information contained in document metadata. Here, lawyers who receive documents are not prohibited from searching for metadata, and although they are required to notify the sender if they find anything, at that point, the potentially damaging information is already exposed.
For this reason, many lawyers have gotten into the good habit of converting documents to PDF files before sharing them with other parties. And while it is important to note that the PDF conversion process does not typically remove all metadata from a document, PDF conversion should remove some of the more potentially damaging or embarrassing types of metadata (such as deleted comments). Regardless of whether standard PDF conversion is enough to make you feel comfortable (and there are methods of removing all metadata from PDFs if it is not), there will be times when collaboration considerations or even contractual notice requirements may necessitate that documents be shared in a Word format.
Additionally, as Wisconsin begins to embrace mandatory e-filing (see the June issue of Wisconsin Lawyer), now is a good time to note that even though most documents will need to be filed in PDF format, one document type – proposed orders – must be filed in an Office Open XML format (like .docx), first introduced with Microsoft Office 2007.
So, recognizing that there will be times when converting to PDF just is not an option, let us review how to find and remove hidden data and personal information from Word files, using Word’s built-in Document Inspector tool.
Scrubbing Metadata from Other File Types or Batches of Word Files
The methods discussed in this article are the simplest ways to remove metadata from individual Word files. To scrub metadata from batches of Word files, or to scrub digital photos and other types of files, look to third-party solutions such as Digital Confidence’s Batch Purifier, Workshare (which includes metadata security as part of its file review and comparison software), and the PayneGroup’s Metadata Assistant.
Steps to Remove Metadata from Word Files
This applies to Word 2010, Word 2013, and Word 2016. For assistance with other versions of word, as well as Word Perfect, Adobe Acrobat, and other programs, please feel free to contact me at PracticeHelp@wisbar.org.
First, open the Word document you wish to inspect. Make a copy of the document by clicking File > Save As and then typing a name in the File name box. Making a copy is a good idea, because once you remove the data, you may not be able to restore it for your own purposes.
Next, in the copy document, open the Document Inspector by clicking the File tab, and then clicking Info > Check for Issues > Inspect Document.
The Document Inspector dialog box will open, and you can now select the check boxes for the types of hidden content that you want to look for. After doing so, click Inspect.
You can now review the results of the inspection within the Document Inspector dialog box.
Remove the content by clicking Remove All next to the inspection results.
The above process works very well for stripping metadata before sharing a finished document. If, however, you want to share multiple versions of a file as you work on it (without having to go through this process every time), you may instead want Office to remove metadata every time you save a file.
To do this, go into the Privacy Options of the Trust Center (File > Options > Trust Center) and, under Document-specific settings, click Remove personal information from the file properties on save. But, remember that you have to change this option for each document separately – this setting will not apply to other documents.
And that is one less thing to worry about.
So You Want To …
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So, this month, you want to scrub metadata from Word files.
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