If your students are distributing electronic copies of documents they created in Microsoft Word 97, Word 2000, or Word 2002, there’s a good chance they are sending unwanted or deleted text in their documents without knowing it. A friend of mine who is an editor told me that a writer once sent her a Word document as an e-mail attachment that, when opened, contained a good deal of text that she thought the writer had meant to delete. Knowing that the editor often worked in RTF, I concluded the mysterious appearance of deleted text was probably due to Microsoft Word’s Allow Fast Saves option, also known as AutoSave.

The problem with AutoSave
According to Microsoft, “When you save a document with the Allow Fast Saves option selected, Word records only the changes to the document and appends them to the end of the document. This means your document still contains the deleted text, even though it does not appear on the screen.” Thus, if the Allow Fast Saves feature is enabled, what you thought you had deleted is still part of the file and can be seen if the document is opened in a text editor, such as WordPad or NotePad.

What can you do?
It is imperative that end users understand the possibility that they may be sending unwanted/deleted text along with their finished documents, the problems this can cause, and their options for preventing it. This involves making users aware of the security risks involved with Word’s AutoSave option and what their choices are to reduce or eliminate those risks, namely:

  • Refrain from sending digital copies of a document.
  • Turn off the Allow Fast Saves option altogether.
  • Copy and paste the document’s content into a new document before sending.

Use caution when distributing digital copies
The surest way to avoid sending unwanted text is not to send any digital copies at all. Before they press the Send button, users should stop and consider that they might be sending text they don’t want others to see, especially if many users have worked on the document or they themselves were not the original authors. If there is any doubt, it is always safer to send a printed or faxed copy instead. This option, however, is not practical for many organizations that rely on e-mailing document files to multiple people.

Turn off AutoSave
To prevent deleted text from becoming a part of their documents in the first place, users should be shown how to turn off the Allow Fast Saves feature in Word.

Figure A

To turn off the feature, click Tools | Options and Select the Save tab. Make sure the Allow Fast Saves check box is clear, as shown in Figure A.

With AutoSave disabled, Word will perform a full save only. A full save incorporates all changes made to a document and removes deleted text from the file.

What if you want AutoSave enabled?
Many situations may warrant that the AutoSave feature be in effect. Because it requires less time to append changes with AutoSave than it does to incorporate changes in a document with full save, the operating speed of Word is generally improved when one is working with AutoSave enabled. For those situations where it is preferable that the Allow Fast Saves option be turned on, Microsoft suggests that users be taught to copy and paste their document content into a new document before distributing it electronically.

But there’s more
Deleted text is not the only information users should be taught to be wary of sending electronically. Other information that travels as metadata with a Word document can include: the author’s initials, the names of all authors of the document both past and present, document revisions and template information, file properties and summary information, any text or comments that were meant to be hidden, company or organization name, the name of the computer it was created on, the name of the network server or hard disk where the document was saved, and nonvisible portions of any embedded OLE objects.

While there is no foolproof way to completely remove all this information from your document, Microsoft offers some tips to minimize such metadata from electronic copies in the following support documents.

Teach users to practice safe computing
Even beginning users need to know how to secure the privacy of themselves and their organizations. It’s not enough just to teach users, beginning or otherwise, how to work with a product; they need to learn how to work with it safely. Post a comment or write to Mary Ann Richardson and let us know how you’re balancing security and functionality.