Microsoft Office provides several methods to restrict access to documents containing sensitive information and to prevent changes to complex formulas. These tools can be invaluable, especially in a collaborative environment when you want to share information while still preventing unauthorized changes.

One of the keys to Office’s document protection abilities is password protection. Unfortunately, passwords are only useful when they’re remembered; a forgotten password can make it difficult to edit a document and can, in certain cases, prevent all access.

In this article, we’ll look at the ways Office can protect Word and Excel documents and explore a workaround in case of lost passwords. To keep users from losing or forgetting passwords in the first place, we’ve added a few tips for creating passwords that are easy to remember but hard to guess.

Protecting documents
The protection of Word and Excel documents essentially falls into three categories:

  • Preventing any unauthorized access to the file
  • Preventing unauthorized changes to the file (read-only access)
  • Preventing changes to designated portions of the document (protection)

The first two options require a password to open or edit the document. When only protecting sections of a Word document or Excel worksheet, password protection is optional.

Password protection
One of the simplest methods of protecting a document is to assign a password. You can use the password to prevent the opening of the document or to restrict the viewer’s ability to save changes. In either case, to assign a password to a document in Office 2000, you’ll turn to an obscure component of the Save As dialog box.

We’ll use a Word document for our example, although the process is similar in Excel. From the toolbar, select File | Save As. In the resulting dialog box, click the Tools drop-down menu and select General Options, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A
This obscure command lets you assign a password to a Word document.

You’ll then see the dialog box shown in Figure B. At the bottom of this dialog box is a pair of text boxes into which you can enter passwords. You can assign a password to open, one to allow modification, or a different password for each. When you click OK, a dialog box will appear asking you to confirm the passwords.

Figure B
You can assign passwords to open, modify, or both.

The process is a bit simpler in Office 97: Simply click the Options button in the Save As dialog box and enter your password in the Save dialog box. Again, when you click OK, you’ll see a confirmation dialog box for each password. If you’ve established a password for an Office 97 document, Office 2000 will recognize it.

Once you’ve assigned a password, anyone who opens the document will be greeted with a dialog box requesting that password. If a password to open the document is required and that password is not supplied (these types of passwords are case-sensitive), the document won’t open. If a password to modify the document is required and that password is not supplied, the user can still open a read-only copy of the document.

Protecting portions of documents
An alternative to making a document read-only is to prevent changes to a portion of the document instead. This technique, called protection, is especially handy in Excel, where users might have to edit cells adjacent to complex calculations or permanent data.

Strange as it may seem, protection for Excel workbook cells is on by default. However, the worksheet protection feature is inactive until you select Tools | Protection | Protect Sheet. In the resulting dialog box, you have the option of assigning a password to remove worksheet protection. Clicking OK prevents changes to any cells in the worksheet.

If you intend to allow editing of certain cells, you need to disable the protection attribute. You do so by selecting the cell or cells for which you want to allow editing and then choosing Format To Cells. In the resulting dialog box, select the Protection tab and deselect the Locked check box, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C
To allow editing of certain cells in a protected worksheet, you must disable the Locked format attribute.

Now when you choose Tools | Protection | Protect Sheet and click OK, you won’t be able to edit any cells except those for which you’ve removed the Locked attribute.

Protecting Word documents is a little different. You initiate the process by selecting Tools | Protect Document. As you can see from the resulting dialog box, shown in Figure D, you can restrict editing to the Track Changes feature or protect comments or forms.

Figure D
You can protect comments or forms and restrict editing to track changes. You can also specify a password for this protection.

A password to remember
If you’re going to the trouble of adding a password to a document, you need to make sure you can remember or retrieve it. Forgetting a password associated with an Office document can lead to a big headache. But making a password too obvious negates its protection. As a general rule, avoid names—especially names of spouses, children, favorite teams, and the like. Still, you don’t want the password to be so obscure or random that you can’t remember it. The solution? Base your password on something familiar but give it a twist to make it hard to guess.

Security experts recommend combining letters and numbers to frustrate guessers. Tag the password with a digit or two, or better yet, insert a digit somewhere within an easily remembered string. Passwords are often case-sensitive, so mixing case is another common technique. Using these methods, even something as obvious as your own name becomes difficult to guess—but you need to remember the pattern you used to be able to re-create it.

Another trick is to base your password on an object that is visible from your desk. Certificates, photographs, calendars, books, office supplies, and many other objects are a treasure trove of nouns and adjectives you can use. Only you know what object you chose, and a quick glance around your desk will remind you of the password. Of course, if you combine this word with a number or mixed-case, you’ll be even more secure.

Finally, I recommend a practice that’s usually frowned upon by security experts: Write the password down. But don’t leave it in a conspicuous place such as a sticky note on the monitor or taped under the keyboard. Rather, hide the password in a book, file folder, or similarly obscure location—under lock and key, if possible. Avoid carrying the password in a wallet or purse, though, because these items can be lost or stolen. Even if a thief doesn’t use the password you hid, you don’t have access to the password anymore and might forget what it is.

A quick recovery trick
Nevertheless, an easy password to remember can still be forgotten, and a password that is written down in the perfect spot can still be lost. No matter what precautions you’ve taken, as the warning box indicates when you’re assigning a password in the first place, you must supply it to access the document. However, if you’re able to open a read-only copy of the document, you can remove the password protection with a simple process. This technique takes advantage of the fact that the password protection affects the document but not on the file level.

To enable editing of a read-only or protected document, simply select all its contents and copy them into a new, blank document. Then delete the original document, saving the copy in its place.

What do you mean you forgot?

How do you open a document when the creator can’t remember the password or has left the company? Do you have a favorite recovery tool or trick? Post a comment to this article and share your tips and tricks.