Free Tool Identifies Hidden Data in Microsoft Office Docs
When it comes to Microsoft Office documents, there is often a lot more in them than meets the eye. Most people don't realize that when two or more people collaborate on a Word, Excel, or PowerPoint document, hidden information--such as deleted text, names of authors, and revision marks--are sometimes unintentionally left in final drafts.
A company called Workshare Technology now offers a free safety net from the potential embarrassment of a public display of these hidden and forgotten comments and changes. The company's Trace application sends out an alert if hidden information, also known as metadata, is embedded in a Microsoft Office file. When hidden data is identified, a dialogue box pops up from your system tray alerting you. Clicking on the alert message generates a report of all the hidden data inside the file. Workshare Trace, announced early this month, is available for download now.
Workshare Technology also is updating its existing Workshare Protect software with a new version 4. The core functions of Workshare Protect 4 are to catch and clean hidden data embedded in files, but it also helps users to manage the presentation of their documents and who gets to see them. This program costs between $30 and $50, depending on your PC's software configuration. Free trial versions of the software are available.
New to this version is tighter integration with e-mail programs--the software alerts you when you're about to send an attachment with hidden data enclosed. Also new are advanced document-management functions like the ability to place restrictions on who can view, print, and e-mail a document.
Sharing Too Much
The common mistake of leaving behind metadata in documents typically occurs when Microsoft Office users select the Track Changes feature in programs like Word. With Track Changes enabled, Word keeps a record of who made what changes and when. You can view this record by using Word's Show Markup option. Other data pertaining to a document's history and authors can be found under the Properties option.
Microsoft Office programs offer their own tool to remove hidden information. All one needs to do is select "Accept all changes" from the given Office application menu. But, all too often people forget to make this simple change, and they leave behind unintended information such as who viewed a file, who deleted text, and where files have been stored on a company's server.
A quick review of many Word documents sent to this reporter from Fortune 500 companies contained edit histories, deleted text, and comments between co-authors about how to phrase things. More serious gaffes have been reported involving legal and government documents.
Hands On: Free Trace Tool
I used a prerelease version of Workshare Technology's free Trace program, and found the application worked fine when it came to alerting me to what hidden data concealed itself in a document. However, I felt the program's alerts were alarmist.
Using Trace, only one deleted acronym, "IEEE," showed up in a test document. However, Trace issued a balloon message alerting me: "Active document contains high-risk hidden data." By clicking on the Trace icon in the system tray, a Risk Summary report was generated, singling out "IEEE" as "high risk" and identifying 18 other issues as "risks".
Besides the "high risk" deleted word, "medium risks" included the names of reviewers. "Low risks" included statistical information about the document, the author, and the title of the document, and words associated with Microsoft Smart Tags. Despite the original "high-risk hidden data" warning, the document received an overall Low to Medium risk rating. I appreciated the heads-up on the deleted word "IEEE," but I thought identifying things such as the title of a document as "risks" was overkill.
When I began composing an Outlook e-mail message, I received another alarming but ultimately unnecessary warning when I typed something as innocuous as "Hi." Don't expect Trace to remove offending data. That's up to you. Again, you can erase most metadata by clicking "Accept all changes" in the appropriate menu in any given Office program. However, Microsoft offers its own Office plug-in called Remove Hidden Data to accomplish this. It works with most Office applications.
Remove Hidden Data isn't user friendly, however,nor does it warn you when hidden data is in a document. Remove Hidden Data also doesn't generate a report showing you potential hidden threats as Trace does.
If you are interested in identifying hidden data and destroying it, pair Workshare's Trace with Microsoft's Remove Hidden Data. But if you need more control over what gets removed and the ability to scan multiple documents at the same time for metadata, and you want advanced document-management control, Workshare Protect 4 is a better fit.
Workshare Protect 4 First Look
There is a lot to like with Workshare Protect 4's intuitive interface. But unfortunately, in my tests, this new version of Workshare Protect didn't always guard documents as well as it could have.
Workshare Protect costs $30 for a version that works with PCs running Outlook. If you use Lotus Notes or Novell Groupwise, a version that integrates with these programs costs $50. A final release of Protect 4 for Outlook is slated for February 28. Protect 4 for Notes and Groupwise is expected in March.
Like Trace, Workshare Protect 4 identifies threats. It also goes a step further, allowing you to easily rid your Office files of some or all of the 33 types of metadata it identifies, like deleted text.
In my tests, Workshare Protect 4 integrated seamlessly with Outlook and Lotus Notes. I really liked the feature that intercepts e-mail before you send it if your attachment has hidden data contained in it. After you hit Send in either Lotus Notes or Outlook, a dialogue box alerts you to any hidden data and gives you the option to selectively remove metadata or clean the entire document. You also can follow the software's prompts and have your Office document turned into a read-only Adobe PDF file with printing and copying disabled.
I was disappointed in a feature called Restrict Document, which allows you to set rules for who can can print, e-mail, or change Office documents that you author. This feature will appeal to firms that handle sensitive data and need to share documents and also limit who can view and edit those documents. Among other things, Restrict Document is supposed to prevent sensitive documents from being sent as e-mail outside of an organization or even from being e-mailed at all. However, Restrict Document is only effective if Workshare Protect is installed on any PC you intend to restrict documents on--a feature that I found rather limiting.
However, in my test of a prerelease version, even when Restrict Document was installed and running, it was easy to bypass security restrictions. All it took to circumvent its limits was to use an e-mail program that isn't compatible with Workshare Protect, such as Outlook Express. I was also able to use a Hotmail account to attach and send a restricted document to whomever I wished.
Workshare acknowledges this as a loophole. "As with many security issues, if somebody is intent on being malicious and intends to circumvent security measures, confidential information could be leaked," wrote Director of Product Management Matthew Brown in an e-mail.
The free Workshare Trace isn't unique in what it does. However, Trace's clean interface and easy-to-understand risk reports make it a great option for identifying hidden data.
Workshare Protect 4 is one of many programs on the market that rid documents of potentially embarrassing hidden information. Other options include KKL Software's $20 EZClean and Esquire Innovations' $250 iScrub. However, Workshare Protect 4 is a reasonably priced tool for saving your bacon, particularly if you're in a field that needs tight control over document management and presentation.
Excellent at alerting you to hidden data in Office files, but doesn't offer a tool to remove data.
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