In most firms, IT departments pursue computer security policies designed to defend against incoming threats like viruses. But how many users know the dangers of sending
documents created electronically? Documents created with Microsoft Corp.'s Office suite contain hidden information known as metadata. Some of it is benign and useful. Some of it, though, may give outsiders information you may not want them to know. Find out how to reduce exposure.
By Donna Payne and Bruce Lewis|September 16, 2004 at 12:00 AM
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Law firms must constantly protect themselves from any number of security threats. Dangers include malicious computer viruses and scripts, hackers, and spyware that secretly records your every keystroke and sends that data to marketers. These are just a few of the daily issues that confront IT administrators; the threats are as varied and numerous as they are real. Firewalls and other security related software must be updated constantly to protect law firm networks from being compromised. As we become increasingly connected through the use of e-mail, handheld devices, instant messaging and other communication driven technology, security becomes ever more critical. WHAT’S IN YOUR DOCUMENTS? In most firms, secretaries and attorneys have a general idea of the principal risks and issues associated with network security. IT departments often send out periodic reminders regarding Internet and e-mail policies and regularly apply security patches and other updates. Many firms have developed best practices and procedures for computer usage, and post them on the firm’s Intranet or employee handbook, and cover the policies with newly hired employees. But how many of your users are aware of the dangers posed by sending out documents electronically? Amazingly — fewer than you might think. Today, more than 90 percent of documents are created electronically, with little thought to what might be in them other than what is visible to the naked eye. WORD DOCUMENTS AND METADATA Documents created using Microsoft Corp.’s Office suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) contain hidden information known as metadata. Some types of metadata are benign and useful, while other types can provide others who view or work on your documents with information you may not want them to know. Every time you create or edit a Word file, certain types of hidden information are stored with and travel with the document. This can include the list of the last 10 authors, the amount of time spent editing the document, changes that have been made to the document as well as the name of the attached template, custom document properties and much more. Many legal professionals who are knowledgeable regarding the issues and risks associated with metadata in Word files are often surprised to learn that Corel Corp.’s WordPerfect and Adobe System Inc.’s PDF files also contain large amounts of hidden information. Rather than purchase and use third party metadata removal tools, many law firms simply advise users to publish external documents as PDF files before sending, under the assumption they will be metadata free. This is not the case — PDF files contain substantial metadata. Sherry Kappel, vice president of development at Microsystems explains, “Adobe’s integration to Microsoft Office applications provides unparalleled electronic publishing capabilities — but with those capabilities come heightened responsibilities. Are tracked revisions accepted? Comments suppressed? Is document information up to date? Are redaction techniques electronically savvy?” Without checklisting these issues within your document workflow, quality control processes and job configuration, she says, sending a PDF file is just about the same as sending the editable .doc file itself. REDUCING YOUR RISK OF EXPOSURE Microsoft offers a free (but unsupported) Remove Hidden Data utility that is available from its Web site, which can also help to identify potential risks. Using a third-party metadata tool that integrates with e-mail and document management software can help to reduce the risk of accidental exposure. While third-party add-ins automate the clean up process, you can also take precautions for minimizing metadata in all applications. Microsoft and Corel both offer tips on how to minimize metadata problems. Here are a few suggestions for WordPerfect users:
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