BBC News reports something that most of us probably knew but never think about:

Usually with Microsoft Word, what you see is what you get.

If you make a change to a document, then that is what you see when it gets printed out.

But in fact, in many cases it is what you cannot see at first glance that proves more interesting.

“The time when most information tends to leak is when you are using a document that has a number of revisions or a number of people working on it,” says Nick Spenceley, founder director of computer forensics firm Inforenz.

The UK government has now largely abandoned Microsoft Word for official documents and has turned to documents created using Adobe Acrobat which uses the Portable Data Format (PDF).

“I’m not sure many people check Word documents before they go out or are published,” says Mr Spenceley.

He says he knows of a case in which someone found previous versions of an employment contract buried in the Word copy he was sent. Reading the hidden extras gave the person applying for the job a big advantage during negotiations.

Sometimes the mistakes are even more public.

During the hunt for the Washington sniper the police allowed the Washington Post to publish a letter sent to the police that included names and telephone numbers.

The newspaper tried to hide these details using black boxes which were easily removed and the sensitive details exposed for all to see.

But it is not just governments, businesses and newspapers that can be embarrassed in this way.

You could be too.

There is a function in many versions of Microsoft Office programs, which includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint, that means that fragments of data (which Microsoft refers to as metadata) from other files you deleted or were working on at the same time could be hidden in any document you save.

This could be embarrassing for any home workers whose colleagues find out that they have been applying for jobs while working at home or being less than complimentary about their co-workers.


As I said, I’m not unaware of this feature–and it really is a feature, not a bug!–of Office but never really considered the implications before.

(Hat tip to Brian Micklethwait who found it on InstaPundit)

FILED UNDER: Policing, Science & Technology, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.