Computer researcher Simon Byers has a word of advice for anyone concerned about protecting their personal information: You might want to reconsider using Microsoft Word software. As Mark Ward of the BBC reports, Byers conducted a survey of 100,000 Word documents from various web sites and discovered that every one of them contained hidden information -- including previously deleted text, the names of authors who worked on various document drafts, and information about the network in which the document traveled. In some cases he even discovered social security numbers.
The hidden content in Microsoft Word has caused controversy worldwide. When a Word document revealed the names of four civil servants who co-authored Britain's infamous 'dodgy dossier,' press office head Alastair Campbell was forced to explain their involvement to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Last summer, The Washington Post published a letter sent to the police that included sensitive information, including names and telephone numbers, the publication used black boxes to mask the details. The boxes, however, were easily removed with the proper software.
'Unix and Linux users can turn tools such as Antiword and Cadoc to turn the document, including its text information, into a simple text file,' Ward reports. Other hidden text that could be accessed by such programs include:
- Text from other documents open at the same time
- E-mail headers and server information
- Printer names
- Data about the terminal on which the document was written
- Where the document is saved
- Document version number and format
Byers advises users who are dedicated to Microsoft Word to access utility programs that scrub information from their documents and to follow Microsoft guidelines on protecting them.