Pitfalls of using Microsoft Word

From today’s New York Times

The United Nations issued a long-awaited report on Syria’s suspected involvement in the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. It was a damning report for Syria by any standard, but recipients of a version of the report that went out on Oct. 20 were able to track the editing changes, which included the deletion of names of officials allegedly involved in the plot, including the Syrian president’s brother and brother-in-law.

A similar gaffe embarrassed the network software company SCO Group in 2004, when it filed suit against DaimlerChrysler for violations of their software agreement. A carelessly distributed Microsoft Word version of the suit revealed, among other things, that the company had spent a good deal of time aiming the suit at Bank of America instead. “It just sort of made it look like they were looking for the easiest target,” Mr. Kennedy said.

At about the same time, California’s attorney general, Bill Lockyer, floated a letter calling peer-to-peer file-sharing software – long the bane of the entertainment industry’s interests – “a dangerous product.” But a peek at the document’s properties revealed that someone dubbed “stevensonv” had a hand in its creation.

Vans Stevenson, a senior vice president with the Motion Picture Association of America, said later that he had offered input on the document but had not written it.

“California AG Plays Sock Puppet to the MPAA,” was one blogger’s response.

The issue increasingly nags at the legal system, as lawyers become aware of the advantages of requesting discovery of the metadata buried in word-processed documents (or debate the ethics of scrubbing the metadata from a file before turning it over to the other side).

This is an old story. The most celebrated case of the pitfalls of using Word came in February 2003, when Tony Blair’s office published the infamous ‘dossier’ about Saddam Hussein’s alleged armory in Word format. (Much of it turned out to be plagiarised from a research student’s article in the journal Middle East Review of International Affairs entitled “Iraq’s Security and Intelligence Network: A Guide and Analysis”.) Richard M. Smith conducted a terrific analysis of the Downing Street document’s metadata and identified the people who had authored and revised it. As a result, the UK government has largely abandoned Microsoft Word for documents that become public and now tends to circulate them in pdf format. However, my experience is that most companies continue blithely to reveal the origins of, and revisions to, their internal documents!

If you must use Word, be careful to turn off ‘Track Changes’, save the document as an rtf file and then convert it to pdf before letting it out into the world.