10 things you can do to protect your Office 2010 files

These days, it's easier than ever to work collaboratively -- but it's also more likely that you'll run into malicious code or that the wrong people could access your files. See how Office 2010 has tightened security via features such as Protected View and File Block.

Your documents may not include trade secrets (or maybe they do!), but it's still important to know how to take simple precautions to ensure that only the information you mean to share gets shared. Office 2010 brought a few useful changes to the way the software secures your work. Here are 10 ways you can put those features to good use when you begin to share your creations.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Get to know Protected View

The big security story in Office 2010 is the way in which Office intercepts files it perceives as threats. Now when Office notices you're trying to open a file type that is not commonly used (you can control this through your Option settings) or a file from a possibly unsafe location, your application will display a warning in the message bar at the top of the application window. The file is temporarily placed in a sandbox, where it cannot affect any of your other files or programs -- just in case. If you recognize the file or know the owner, you can click Enable Editing to tell the program everything's okay. If you are suspicious and want to close the file, you can do so without worrying that you've infected anything on your system.

Figure A

Office 2010 displays files that could be a security risk in Protected View so that you can determine whether they are safe to edit.

2: Customize File Block settings

The File Block settings control the types of files your Office program considers suspect. The feature was developed in large part because the Office team noticed vulnerabilities in the software that were being exploited during the File Open process. That loophole has been tightened so that Office scrutinizes files you open as you open them. If anything looks a little fishy, the file is quarantined until you say it's okay to swim in the bigger pool with the other documents. You can change the types of files that cause that kind of response by clicking the File tab, clicking Options, clicking Trust Center, and clicking the Trust Center Settings button. Click File Block Settings to view the way your application will behave when different file types are found. Make any changes you want by selecting the appropriate check boxes and clicking OK.

3: Add a password

Yes, passwords can be cracked. But they're still a good first line of defense when you have a file you want to reserve for certain eyes only. You can easily add a password by clicking the File tab to display Backstage view and clicking Protect Document in the Info tab. Click Encrypt With A Password and then type your password in the message box. Be sure to write down the password somewhere safe before you click OK. Office doesn't store the password in a place you can access it later, so if you forget it, you'll be out of luck trying to open the file.

4: Set user permissions

Thinking through the roles and permissions we want others to have when we're working collaboratively on documents takes a little imagination. But it's worth it because it will keep you from having to troubleshoot file problems later. You can set user permissions to limit both who has access to your document and what they can do once they are working in the document. You might limit a particular user to making formatting changes, for example, or give one user access to the Marketing section but not the Financial Statement. You can set, fine-tune, and remove user permissions in Backstage view on the Info tab. Get started by clicking Protect Document | Workbook | Presentation and clicking Restrict Editing.

5: Add a digital signature

A digital signature is a kind of confidence-builder that tells those receiving your document, "Yes, I really did create this." You can add a digital signature easily, using a free service through Microsoft that you access through Backstage view. You can also set up Office to work with a signature service from a third-party vendor. Click File and click Protect Document | Workbook | Presentation and then Add A Digital Signature.

6: Check your macro and ActiveX Settings

Your Office application may already be set to block macros and ActiveX controls it doesn't recognize, but it's a good idea to make sure. Click File and click Options | Trust Center. Click the Trust Center Settings button and click ActiveX Settings And Macro Settings to ensure that the protections are set to levels you're comfortable with.

7: Run the Document Inspector

The Document Inspector runs a number of checks on your file to look for personal or hidden information you might not want to share with others. All the check boxes are selected by default, but you can deselect any you don't want to run. After the Inspector does its thing, the report tells you what, if anything, was found. You can then click Remove All (or leave the issue, depending on what it is), and click Reinspect to run the utility again.

Figure B

The Document Inspector reviews your file for a number of items you may not want to share with others.

8: Mark your file as final

If you don't want users to make any further changes to a file you've been working on, you can mark it as final. This saves the document as read-only and disables many of the Ribbon commands. Users will still be able to view and print the file. Note, however, that users can disable the Mark As Final setting, make changes, and turn the feature back on again. For this reason, it's best to use Mark As Final with another security feature, like a digital signature.

9: Save as a PDF or XPS file

Another way to prepare a final version of a file -- with content and format intact -- involves saving the file as a PDF (Portable Document Format) or XPS (Extensible Print Specification) file. The PDF/XPS file is preserved in a formatted, non-editable state. Although sending a document by PDF seems to be a safe and final way to circulate important documents, it is still possible to get a utility to allow for the editing of PDFs, so realize that this isn't the end-all in security for sensitive files.

10: Use the Trust Center

The Trust Center contains all kinds of settings that help you control the ways various features access and work with your files. Using the Trust Center, you can manage security and privacy settings; set up trusted publishers, locations, and documents; and tailor the way Office security features work on your system. To display the Trust Center, click the File tab, click Options, and click Trust Center. Then, click the Trust Center Settings button to display the specific settings in use in your application. Just make the changes you want and click OK to save your changes.

Remember that the default settings in your application are set the way they are for a reason, so lowering your guard too much -- for example, accepting all macros or running all ActiveX controls -- could be inviting trouble. If you're smart with your file security and you use a good antivirus program to rid your computer of cookies and malware on a regular basis, you should be germ-free and happily cranking out content with Office 2010.

Katherine Murray is the author of Microsoft Office 2010 Plain & Simple (Microsoft Press, 2010), Microsoft Word 2010 Plain & Simple (Microsoft Press, 2010), and Microsoft Word 2010 Inside Out (Microsoft Press, 2010). You can reach Katherine through her blog, BlogOffice or by emailing kmurray230@sbcglobal.net.