How tracked changes have made businesses and government look foolish

Be careful out there!

Don't publish your documents to the web, or email documents, that contain tracked changes that you wouldn't want to appear—with your name against them—in public!

First, the bad news…

Word's track changes functionality is a great thing—until you release from your office a document that still contains all those early ideas and discarded thoughts.

People who have may regret distributing documents containing tracked changes include:

  • The UK government was embarrassed (again) by a Word document containing tracked changes in October 2008. ZDNet in the UK reported that Home Secretary Charles Clarke emailed a Word  document that appeared to show that he had prevaricated over laws relating to holding terror suspects.

    However, my cynicism level rose when I noted that ZDNet in the UK reported three different stories on one day about data secreted in files. The three articles quote three different spokespeople for the same company that makes a product that (you guessed it!) accepts or rejects tracked changes in a Word document.

  • The UN released a document containing tracked changes following its investigation into the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. In January 2008, reason.com interviewed the leading investigator on the case, Detlev Mehlis, who explained why he made changes to the document before it was made public, and that the UN press office had released the document with the tracked changes (January 2008).
  • Scottish politics were in the news again in January 2008. Tracked changes in an internal waste audit report for Aberdeenshire County Council showed that the original had included "repeated warnings about waste regulations breaches, illegal dumping and a lack of retained documentation" but that they were removed from the final report seen by councillors (January 2008).
  • Scottish Labour politician Wendy Alexander was in hot water over a "donations scandal" in December 2007 in which tracked changes in a document allegedly proved she knew, or didn't know, some fact important to her political future.
  • The Australian Labor Party has been embarrassed by tracked changes left in political speeches. While the discovery of the tracked changes was old, it was brought up again by the National Indigenous Times on the day of the 2007 federal election (December 2007).
  • The New Zealand government has been embarrassed by track changes left in an electronic document describing the nation's emergency warning system (January 2007).
  • A Word document embarrassed a UN investigator when people reading the document discovered it contained tracked changes. The document contributed to a political controversy surrounding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the assassination of the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, according to Slate, GCN.com and the International Herald Tribune (October 2005).
  • Charles Clarke, Home Secretary in the UK Government sent a Word document to his political opponents that "appeared to back controversial plans to hold terror suspects for up to three
    months without trial, however anybody applying the Microsoft 'track changes' function was able to see Clarke's original wording which expressed concerns over such measures" according to
    silicon.com (16 September 2005).
  • Microsoft published press releases and documents to their web site containing tracked changes (April 2004).
  • Geek.com reports that SCO (which owns Unix)[outdated link removed by Lene Fredborg 1-Jun-2017] is in the middle of an almighty legal tussle and is suing Daimler Chrysler. But tracked changes in a now-famous Word document let us see that SCO originally thought about suing Bank of America over the same issue. CNet wrote about the same story, but its description of track changes isn't quite accurate. (March 2004).
  • The California Attorney General was caught out distributing a letter that appears to have been originally written by an employee at the lobbying organization, the Motion Picture Association of America. It's not clear from this story whether it was tracked changes or just ordinary metadata that got the A-G into public strife (March 2004).

And now the good news…

  • Here's an example of a really good use of Word's track changes. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council requested public comment on proposed changes to the Council's bylaws. It created a Word document of the bylaws, showed the proposed changes as tracked changes, saved the document as a PDF file and made it available to the public for comment. This makes it really easy to see what changes the Council is proposing in its bylaws.
  • If you create a PDF file from your Word document, you can include the display of the track changes in the PDF file. But there might be a case of Overstating the threat of metadata in PDF Documents.

How to ensure that you don't send out documents containing tracked changes

Before you distribute a Word document, don't just hide any tracked changes. Make sure you either accept or reject all the tracked changes.