What’s hidden in your Word documents?

Last week, a company I worked with e-mailed me a contract and a cover memo explaining the contract’s terms in plain English. Both documents were in Word document (.doc) format. What the sender didn’t know was that the cover memo contained some comments, written by various people as the document went through the approval process. When I opened it in Word 2007, the comments appeared in the margin, giving me an insight the sender never intended for me to have. (The default settings for all Office 2007 programs automatically display hidden comments and tracked changes whenever you open or save a document.)

In this case, the damage was minimal. In fact, I worked with the folks involved to get the document scrubbed so that they wouldn’t be embarrassed the next time they sent it to a potential contractor. But with a more sensitive negotiation or a less friendly relationship, the consequences could have been catastrophic. So I thought it might be useful to share the details with you so you can avoid potentially embarrassing or incriminating yourself with a document you create.

The problem arises when you work with an Office document that has the Track Changes feature turned on, or when someone inserts a comment into the document. It’s possible to hide the tracked changes and comments, so that you’re blissfully unaware of their existence. Until someone like me discovers them, that is. And there are other places where personal information can lurk as well.

One way to avoid problems is to “scrub” a document manually. For step-by-step instructions on how to get rid of tracked changes and comments, see this article at Microsoft’s Office Online site: Get rid of tracked changes and comments, once and for all.

For an even more detailed article covering all possible types of personal information that can be stored in Office formats, see Protecting Personal Data in Your Word 2003 Documents. This article is written from a developer’s point of view, but it’s still refreshingly readable.

The trouble with these manual solutions, however, is that they require that you go through a fairly cumbersome set of steps every time you save a document or send it via e-mail. That’s why I recommend installing the Remove Hidden Data add-in if you use Office 2003 or Office XP on a PC. (Sorry, Mac Office users, you’re left out on this one.) With this add-in installed, you get a new Remove Hidden Data option on the File menu. This allows you to save a copy of the original document with all personal information removed. It’s a one-way operation – when you’re done, the original information is irrevocably removed – so you should do this only when the document has completed the review cycle. (At which point you could also consider converting it to PDF format, making it easier for people to read.)

If you use Office 2007, you don’t need an add-in, because the capability to find and remove personal information is built into all Office 2007 programs. From the Office menu, choose Prepare, Inspect Document. This opens the following dialog box:


You can choose which types of information you want to look for, and when the inspection is complete you get the option to remove anything that’s found in that category.

Even better: Open the Trust Center (Office menu, Word Options, Trust Center tab, Trust Center Settings button). In the Trust Center, choose Privacy Options and select Warn before printing, saving or sending a file that contains tracked changes or comments.


This option is off by default. When you turn it on, the setting applies to all future documents you create, and you significantly reduce the likelihood that you’ll make this mistake again. If you try to save a document that contains comments or tracked changes, you’ll see a warning like this one:


If you’re looking for a legitimate reason to upgrade to Office 2007, this is one of the best.

9 thoughts on “What’s hidden in your Word documents?

  1. There were other reasons, but this is definitely one of the good ones.

    However, the PDF export plugin for Word 2007 really leaves a lot to be desired. I created a document with it that I sent to an output facility, and it came back hopelessly munged. I then tried installing the free CutePDF virtual printer driver, and sent them the export from that. It worked perfectly.

  2. Serdar,

    I’ve made dozens of PDFs from Word 2007 using the XPS/PDF add-in, on at least four different machines. Never had a probl;em even once. So I don’t think your experience is typical, especially if it was a one-time glitch.

  3. Actually, the output provider in question had reported that a number of other people who had submitted W2K7-created PDFs had similar problems. But, I am willing to believe it’s something on their end — since everyone else I’ve given such PDFs to have never had an issue.

  4. Why not just save in .rtf format when sending the file out of the office? Not only does it NOT save such data, but it is also readable in all versions of word without any trouble (As .doc sometimes has in older versions)

  5. On a slightly side- note – the Redaction tool for Word 2007 – it has dissapeared! Few a few weeks it was on downlaods.microsoft.com, then it was “page cannot be found”. I spent litterally 55 minutes on the phone to Microsoft (UK) to ask what was up “It’s still beta” came the response.. Well, yes, but it was there before!. Anywayw, the search results have now evaporated. It’s all over blogs, so I know i’m not inventing the previous existance!

  6. .rtf does retain some of the hidden information. Although opening such files in apps other than Word does not display them they are still here, at least for some of them.

  7. Can anyone tell me what the hidden code is that looks like a sun burst ( a circle with four little dots around it)? I cannot delete it and it appears to be some sort of section break because I cannot add any text to the space directly above it. I want to move or delete it. Do you know how to do that?

  8. That symbol usually indicates divisions between cells in a table. Try pressing Ctrl+A and then right-click and see if you have a Table menu.

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