Friday, 24 August 2007

Microsoft Word may show you with your trousers down

The reference to "computer tracking software" in the Church Times article about who 'really' wrote Archbishop Akinola's letter on 'A Most Agonizing Journey' is probably to a little-known feature of Word called 'Track Changes'. Like several things Microsoft, this does more than you might realize and much more than you might want.

As one internet article puts it,

"Accidentally sending personal information about yourself or contributors can cause embarrassing—or even job-threatening—consequences."

Or in Microsoft's own words,

"When you distribute an Office document electronically, the document might contain information that you do not want to share publicly, such as information you’ve designated as “hidden” or information that allows you to collaborate on writing and editing the document with others."

To which Akinola, Minns and others can only add, "Hear, hear!"

The good news for them is that many of the Word documents floating around will suffer from the same problem. Here is an example from the UK Government, so if you've got a Word document sitting on your computer - no matter how far removed from the original author - that could show up the colour of someone's underpants, now's the time to get looking before everyone realizes what is going on.

Here, apparently, is how you get to see those embarassing details (should they exist). On the toolbar, click >View, >Toolbars, >Reviewing. This then gives you access to a "Track Changes and Comments" toolbar. However, the 'display mode' apparently matters at this point, because it may not show all the changes recorded in the document. You need to familiarize yourself with this function in order to see all the details the document contains.

The most important thing, of course, is to know how to get rid of this information (unless you want everyone to know you can't write for toffee). Fortunately this article has a link at the bottom which tells you how to do it. However, it does appear to be a bit fiddly.

Now at this point, people might have noticed I keep saying "apparently". This is because I don't use Microsoft Word, but have stuck with one of the original market leaders, namely Corel Corporation's WordPerfect. As someone whose tombstone will not read, "I wish I'd spent more time on the computer," I would state categorically that I find this a far easier and more efficient program to use than Word, which makes me spit chips every time I'm forced to work with it on someone else's machine.

To my knowledge, it is also less inclined to insert these trackable changes in your documents - unless you choose to have it do so. There is a 'Review' option, similar to Word, and you can look up document properties (which allowed me to see, for example, that a media release from the Chelmsford Diocese's Press Officer wasn't authored by him according to the document! I also know who typed it, or at least, the machine it was typed on. WordPerfect will provide the same details, though.)

So, if you are a Word user, my thoughts go out to you, especially as the Track Changes feature also applies if you publish your Word document as a web page. So, get panicking and scurrying, my little Microsoft friends.

John Richardson
24 August 2007

PS For a much more detailed analysis, and an indication of how scarey this really is, read here.

PPS You can download an 'Add In' from Microsoft which will help. However, the title, "Office 2003/XP Add-in: Remove Hidden Data", rather points up the existence of the problem, I feel!

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Peter Kirk said...


I also know who typed it, or at least, the machine it was typed on.

Of course the same caveat also applies to the Akinola/Minns letter. It is quite possible that Akinola actually wrote the whole letter but part of the time was using Minns' computer, or one which Minns gave him and had not been properly re-personalised.

David Cohen said...

So what if various people worked on the letter? Those making the fuss usually accuse Akinola of being an autocrat - now they know that he works collaboratively and submits his work to the comment and judgement of others.

The authors' only sin was to use Micro$oft - Lotus is far faster and better, and has none of the embarrassing hiccups.

Custard. said...

There's very good reasons that pdfs are the standard way of distributing documents.

Others include the fact that it displays the same on all computers, the way it can't be edited, etc.

Sending stuff out in Word is just plain silly.