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Whenever you create, open or save a document using any Microsoft Office application ( e.g., Word), the document may contain “metadata” — embedded information that you may not know about because it is usually hidden on screen. Metadata is used to enhance several Word functions, such as editing, viewing, filing and document retrieval. Harmless, right? Well, that depends on the type of metadata, the document’s method of distribution and your firm’s and clients’ privacy needs. Microsoft has identified 13 types of metadata that could be embedded in your Word documents ( see www.support.microsoft.com, Knowledge Base Article #223396, “How to Minimize Metadata in Microsoft Office Documents”). They include: author name, initials, company name, computer name, name of the network server or hard disk where the document is saved, file properties and summary information, non-visible portions of embedded OLE objects such as an Excel spreadsheet link or PowerPoint presentation, names of the last 10 document authors, document revisions (track changes), document versions, template information (including embedded VBA code), hidden text and comments. Although metadata is, for the most part, not readily viewable on your computer screen, most metadata components can be easily unearthed in any electronic document. So, when you share files electronically (typically via e-mail attachments or Web site postings), you are sharing the metadata as well. In some instances, metadata components can actually be helpful. For example, when collaborating on documents internally, or with co-counsel, it enables you to see tracked changes and clearly identify the authors of those changes. Consider, however, what would happen if documents distributed electronically to opposing counsel contained sensitive hidden text or comments. Or, how would a client react to receiving an electronic copy of a contract or agreement that was clearly drafted for another client? How would your firm’s reputation be affected? These same metadata components could cause you embarrassment and, even worse, put your firm or your client at risk. One solution is to attempt to manually remove the metadata data from your documents before you send them out electronically. Because metadata is created in a variety of ways, there is no single method to entirely eliminate it from your documents manually. Microsoft’s knowledge base provides dozens of articles on various aspects of the subject of metadata, including manual removal of metadata ( see www.support.microsoft.com, Microsoft Knowledge Base Article #290945, “How to Minimize Metadata in Microsoft Word 2002). There are many steps in the process, which is not at all straightforward. Remember, metadata exists within all Office applications and all versions of those applications ( ie, Word 97, 2000 and XP). Word XP does add an option specifically geared to blocking/removing unwanted metadata. Go to “Tools,” “Options” and select the “Security” tab. In the “Privacy” section there are two checkboxes for “Remove personal information from this file on save” and “Warn before printing, sending or saving a file that contains tracked changes or comments.” However, this is hardly a complete solution to the problem. The only way to achieve easy and consistent removal of metadata from a document is via software automation. To this end, there are a number of software programs available that provide different options for addressing the metadata issue. Most enable you to identify and analyze metadata components within your documents, generate detailed reports of that metadata and then “clean” documents before sending them by eliminating the unwanted metadata. They allow you to save the original versions of your documents, as well as “cleaned” versions for distribution. For the most part, these programs are shrink-wrapped and user-friendly. They quickly provide a level of safety and assurance that is not achievable through any kind of manual process. It’s important to note, however, that even after cleaning, there can still be a metadata footprint remaining in the document. This metadata may include the name of the person who initially installed Word on the local machine where the program is running, the version of Word that was used to create the document or the history of paths to where the document has been saved. This data can only be viewed by opening the document up inside of a text or hex editor program. Word XP also adds the capability of opening up a file using the file format type “Recover Text From Any File,” which will also display all embedded metadata in a document. Regardless of the method selected, your firm should consider implementing a system or procedure to protect against unintentional metadata distribution. In the end, the benefits are guaranteed to outweigh any associated costs. William Robertson is President of SoftWise Corporation. The company’s Out-of-Sight metadata management utility allows law firms to reduce risks and avoid potential embarrassments by managing the metadata in electronically distributed documents. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

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