The first common problem with hidden data in Word documents doesn’t really have anything to do with the Word documents themselves. Instead, the issue is related to a lack of familiarity with review tools on the part of the reviewer. The Relativity review platform provides and excellent example of this type of problem. The Relativity native file viewer (i.e., a rendering of the native file, but not a look at the actual native file) offers three different viewer modes. As the Relativity help guide indicates, these three viewer modes are not created equally.
A quick look at the rendering differences between the Draft and Preview modes will give you a good idea as to why this can be an issue. Here is a look at a Word document in the native file viewer in Draft mode.
Now for a look at the same document in Preview mode. As you can easily see, the appearance and accurate representation of the complete contents of the document greatly differs among these views. The obvious differences here include the representations of embedded graphics and document formatting. The Relativity help guide clearly states that this is to be expected, and indicators such as the empty box above also provide plenty of notice to the reviewer that they are not seeing all of the document’s contents.
What is not so clearly stated is that headers and footers will also be left out of the document rendering in Draft mode. What this means is that a Word document could have a header with bold thirty-six font and bright red text in all capital letters reading “PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL,” and a reviewer would have no idea if reviewing in Draft mode. There would be no indicator of such a header, similar to the empty boxes for embedded images, in Draft mode. However, the header would be accurately represented in Preview mode. Long story short… know the capabilities and limitations of your review tools, and always use the viewer mode that will give you the most accurate representation of document content.
While knowing what your tools can and can’t do will lessen the chance of missing some difficult to detect critical content, I am of the opinion that all potentially responsive Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents should be reviewed in native format. There are still plenty of items that will not be visible even when using the most complete viewer mode in your tool. Examples that I personally have seen over the years include inconsistent rendering of track changes in Word documents, failure to render comments embedded on the face of PowerPoint slides, and failure to render comment indicators in Excel documents. It is always worth taking the extra twenty to thirty seconds required to pop open potentially responsive documents and have a quick look.
With those viewer shortcomings in mind, I suggest employing another helpful review platform hidden data detection item. Many platforms have the ability to warns reviewers about potentially hidden content in a document through a pop up dialog box or read only metadata field that warns the reviewer that the document likely requires a closer look. Most review platforms can accommodate this request without any trouble as the trigger is a hidden content flag that naturally exists in document metadata as part of the various office programs. Below are a couple of examples of what those warnings might look like in the Relativity review interface.
The difficulties associated with identifying all of the critical contents within a Word document definitely do not stop at platform viewer limitations. It can be difficult to accurately detect the presence of hidden content even when reviewing a Word document in native format. While items like the warnings above definitely assist reviewers, I have personally seen my fair share of false alarms where the flag indicates hidden content, but I was unable to find it. I can only assume the “yes” hidden content flag is a relic from a past version of the document that had actual hidden content.
I found the presence of such false alarms to be highly problematic as a reviewer as they created uncertainty about whether something was being missed in review. Uncertainty in a profession that is graded on speed and precision is not a good thing. The best and fastest way I found to counteract that uncertainty for Word documents was the Reviewing Pane button.
The Reviewing Pane button can be found under the Review tab on the ribbon in Microsoft Word. A quick click on that button will show you what you need to know about potentially hidden data in the target document so you can make the appropriate call for review. A panel will open (usually to the left) displaying detailed information about changes, comments and other edits active in this particular version of the document that could easily impact relevance and privilege calls.
The example above is a pretty easy one, and this tip is probably only a little helpful in cases where there are so many visual indicators that a document requires more attention. However, anyone doing the work long enough will undoubtedly find plenty of examples with far fewer clear-cut visual queues, or in the case of false alarms… no queues at all. As with most good reviewer tips, I found this one to be most useful in the way that it allowed me to quickly and accurately dispatch documents where there was some uncertainty as to whether hidden content was an issue.
I admit that this solution is pretty simple, but I remember how relieved I was when I came upon it. As a reviewer, and as a manager of reviews, I took my duties very seriously. I fought each day to eliminate inconsistencies from our work flows and to find the best ways to achieve some acceptable degree of certainty in our work. It is tips like this one that I cherished while working in the review industry. It might seem simple and small, but it made a huge difference for me as it eliminated a recurring uncertainty in my day to day work.
Next up… PowerPoint documents.