PDF In-Depth

Overstating the threat of metadata in PDF documents

December 16, 2004

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Earlier this year, Law Technology News published an article by Donna Payne and Bruce Lewis entitled: Metadata: Are you Protected? The article is informative and its authors to be commended for raising awareness of the dangers of metadata. However, I think that in their zeal to warn people about metadata, the authors actually overstated the problem in one key area.

Many lawyers, especially transactional lawyers, now know about the problem of metadata in word processing files. They know that if they send, say, a Word file to someone that the recipient might be able to look at the 'tracked changes' feature and uncover comments that the document author didn't intend to freely reveal. The way that attorneys often solve this problem is by converting the Word document to a PDF file and sending that file to their worthy adversary.

The article by Ms. Payne and Mr. Lewis leads one to the impression that this conversion process will automatically carry over the 'tracked changes' information into the resulting PDF file. It certainly does not dispel that concern, which is likely to arise in the minds of many lawyers. I know about this concern firsthand because our law firm's liability carrier recently warned us in an E-mail about PDF metadata and the immediate reaction of most attorneys was shock that when they converted a word processing file to PDF all of their tracked changes were automatically being sent into the PDF file. I have friends in other law firms who received the same E-mail and it generated the same concern in their firms.

As I understand it, the 'tracked changes' in Word do not ordinarily pass into a PDF file when the word processing document is converted. It can happen, but it takes unusual conditions. After reading the article, I asked Ms. Payne in an E-mail to explain to me how the 'tracked changes' would be passed into a PDF file and she gave me two examples.

First, if the person who converted the Word document attached the Word file into the PDF in its native format (Acrobat allows you to attach files into a PDF document). Okay, but how many people know about this feature and would want to use it if they did? She gave a couple of better examples of where the tracked changes could pass over: (1) if you have the tracked changes visible when you convert to PDF (yes, that would create a PDF with the tracked changes blatantly showing; so make sure you look over the resulting PDF file to verify what you are sending before you send it); (2) if you have your printing configuration in Word set to print 'tracked changes' along with the document (now this is something that could sneak up on you, although you can avoid it again by reading the resulting PDF file after you create it; or you can make sure that your default printing choice is set to not include the tracked changes).

Again, I applaud Ms. Payne and Mr. Lewis for making people aware that PDF files can also contain metadata, but we need to be clear about what sort of metadata is being created in PDF files. All metadata is not bad. The question is whether you are revealing information that you don't want to reveal. Obviously 'tracked changes' in a Word document are not something most lawyers want to reveal. But there are simple methods to avoid the situation, and the fact is that it isn't likely to happen under most circumstances anyway.

This piece originally appeared on PDFforLawyers.com, and has been reproduced with permission.

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