Microsoft Word collaboration features can fool you.
I see this often. It’s easy to turn off if you know where to look, but the fact is all your changes — the text you deleted, perhaps over several iterations — could all still be in the document you share with others.
Even if people know how to turn it off when reading (and many don’t), I’ll assume you really don’t want to share your dirty laundry like that.
Let’s turn it off.
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Why are my revisions visible in Word?
Track Changes is a feature in Word that retains deleted or changed information so the evolution of the document can be seen. It’s important to remove it before sharing to a wider audience, which you can do either by accepting all changes or by using Word’s handy document inspector.
Revision tracking is a feature allowing you to see what changes were made to a document over time. It’s valuable in collaborative environments where multiple people might be working on or reviewing the document as it’s changed.
When you’re done with your revisions, though, you want to publish your final version without all the tracked changes included.
That’s where many people get tripped up.
Pictured above is an example of a document under revision with Track Changes turned on and visible.
That “and visible” part is important. Here’s that same document displayed with a different view.
Here’s the catch: the old information that was deleted and or changed is still in the document.
The difference is in the Track Changes section of the Review ribbon.
“No Markup” is selected, which hides but does not remove the previous content of the document. Change that to “All Markup”:
And all the changes are displayed once again (as in the topmost image above).
There are other variants and settings that may affect how, if, and when the changes are displayed. What’s most important here is that the original version of the document, prior to your changes, remains in the document file for anyone to view.1
The way to avoid this problem entirely is to “accept all changes”.
Click on Review in the Word menu, then click on the downward-facing arrow under Accept in the ribbon, and finally click on Accept All Changes.
Then save the document. All the old information will have been removed.
If it’s important that the change history be preserved (perhaps you need to continue to work on the document and that history is important), make sure to save a copy of this document before accepting all changes. Then be careful to send out only the copy with the changes removed.
Combating information leakage
While not directly related, in addition to unexpectedly sending out all your document’s changes, it’s also not uncommon for a lot of other data — often referred to as “meta-data” — to be included that perhaps you’re not aware of.
The great news is that Word now includes a “Document Inspector” to inform you of everything you might be including in your document that you’re unaware of.
Click on the File menu, then Info.
Click on Check for Issues, and then Inspect Document. (You may be prompted to save your document.)
The inspector includes a scrollable list of various items it can check for. Leave them all checked and click on Inspect.
You’ll notice in my example that both Comments, Revisions, and Versions and Document Properties and Personal Information are flagged.
Comments, Revisions, and Versions covers the revision history items I discussed above, as well as other items that are common as documents are worked on and collaborated on over time.
Document Properties and Personal Information includes a variety of information often associated with your installation of Word, most notably your name and the title of the document itself, as well as things like the Word template that was used, the document subject and category, if specified, and more.
In each case, clicking on Remove All will scrub the document of those items.
Turning it off
Revision tracking is a useful feature, but perhaps you simply don’t need it at all. If that’s the case, you can turn it off.
Click on the Review menu item, and then note the state of the “Track changes” button in the riboon.
If it is enabled, just click on Track Changes to turn it off.
Now no changes will be tracked, and nothing should be saved to the document other than its current state.
No longer a threat: Fast Save
In the distant past, the “Fast Save” feature of Word was perhaps the most common cause for unexpected data leakage. It was an optimization to save documents faster by writing only the changes to disk while leaving the original untouched.2
Microsoft closed this hole in 2003 by removing the Fast Save feature completely. It had become somewhat pointless anyway as disk speeds increased.
Use revision tracking, aka Track Changes, all you like. It’s a useful feature to understand what’s happening as your documents change.
But if you’re about to send a document to an audience that shouldn’t see all the details of the document’s change history, be sure to accept all changes first or consider running the document inspector.
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