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Issue 121 | October 14, 2003
The Hidden Information in Your Files
 When one uses Microsoft® Word®, it is easy to believe that what you see is what you get, because typically any changes that are carried out upon the text of a document appears on-screen, and can be subsequently printed on a printer. Unfortunately, what you do not see when you create, open, or save a Word document can contribute to a loss of privacy, litigation liability, embarrassment, and potential financial harm. This hidden information, known as "metadata," is used for a variety of purposes to enhance the editing, viewing, filing, and retrieval of Office documents.

Several Microsoft® Office® programs, including Word, Excel and PowerPoint, take metadata from other files that you deleted or were working on at the same time, and hide it in the document that you save. While some metadata is readily accessible through the user interface; other metadata is only accessible through extraordinary means, such as opening a document in a low-level binary file editor. Here are some examples of metadata that may be stored in your documents:
  • Text from other documents open at the same time
  • Document revisions, including redlined and deleted text
  • E-mail headers and server information
  • Reviewer’s comments
  • Data about the machine where the document was written and saved
  • Names and usernames of document authors
In fact, a survey of 100,000 Word documents on the Internet by AT&T computer researcher Simon Byers that was recently published in IEEE Security and Privacy magazine found that every single one of them had hidden information. About half the documents had up to 50 hidden words, a third had up to 500 words hidden, and 10% had more than 500 words concealed within them.

For electronic application filing via the Internet, the USPTO provides "e-TEAS" web-based forms for trademarks and the "PASAT," "TSA," and "ePAVE" authoring tool software. With regard to the e-TEAS forms, the Office warns that "[s]imply cutting and pasting a Word or Word Perfect document into a TEAS form may cause the introduction of unwanted characters in the form and/or prevent successful validation of the form. To avoid this problem, you should convert the Word or Word Perfect document to a text format."

With regard to the "EFS" Electronic Filing System for patent applications, Michael Taylor with the USPTO's Electronic Business Center says "We strip out all the metadata that is part of the MS-WORD formatting. The format we accept of XML is for non-proprietary electronic records management. This format does not contain metadata of the sort MS-Word captures." Instead, the patent authoring tools allow applicants to code (with so-called "meta tags") the various parts of their application in eXtensible Markup Language while still operating in the environment of commercially available word processing programs. In fact, the Office actually recommends converting patent source documents to Microsoft® Word® or Corel® WordPerfect® format before copying them into the authoring software.

While the USPTO seems to have the metadata problem under control for application filings, there is still no easy way for users to manually remove all metadata from their word-processing files. Even file formats that were once thought to be safe, such as Adobe Systems' portable document format, now include embedded metadata. In fact, lawyers that have purchased metadata removal tools for extracting hidden information from their outgoing electronic documents are now using those same tools to analyze and dissect incoming documents during discovery.

For more information on "How to Minimize Metadata in Microsoft Office Documents" go to http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=kb;en-us;223396 or contact the authors of this article, Paul Dara (Paul.Dara@tkhr.com) or Bill Heinze (Bill.Heinze@tkhr.com), at Thomas, Kayden, Horstemeyer and Risley LLC in Atlanta, Georgia USA.

Paul Dara        Bill Heinze

The information contained in this email is provided for informational purposes only and does not represent legal advice. Neither the APLF nor the author intends to create an attorney client relationship by providing this information to you through this message.


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