Beware the perils of hidden data

In a modern-day business environment, documents travel from inbox to inbox, evolving as multiple parties inside and outside of the organisation offer feedback, edits and comments. Once a static entity, the 21st Century document has become an ever-developing and changing ‘living document’.

As a result, documents gather hidden information throughout their lifecycle, known as metadata, which is easily discoverable for those who chose to delve deeper. Although document metadata can be useful, the reality is that many knowledge workers are completely unaware that often a business’ most critical information exists within it – let alone the risks associated with inadvertently sharing this information externally.

>See also: The true cost of metadata

As the trend towards flexible working increases and the need to collaborate on documents remotely becomes essential for the future of work, this hidden data threat begins to pose an increasing risk to business.

What is hidden data?

Metadata, also known as hidden data, exists in various forms in documents, from Track Changes in a Word document and numbers in hidden rows in Excel, to speaker notes in a PowerPoint deck and geolocation data in a digital photo. Metadata can also include document properties, such as the title, subject, editing times, or names of an author.

While invisible to the naked eye, hidden data can cause more damage if exposed than visible data, as it often contains confidential information that the sender may not want the receiver to see. For example, a financial services consultancy would not want their tracked changes discussing pricing and ideas to be visible to a competing business.

Therefore, revealing this sensitive information could compromise a businesses’ security, and cause irrevocable reputational damage.

Exposing business information

Our recent study of 800 knowledge workers worldwide revealed that worryingly, although 94% of respondents claimed that they were aware of the risk posed by sharing corporate content externally, 68% failed to remove hidden data from documents before sharing. These employees are risking the exposure of their businesses’ most critical information through hidden metadata.

Compounding this issue is the fact that workforces are increasingly becoming more mobile. Gartner predicts that 38% of organisations will have adopted Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) schemes by 2016 and that 45% will have moved to a complete BYOD programme by 2020. This BYOD rise and the corresponding data boom that accompanies it are leaving businesses struggling to manage their data, never mind being able to protect and audit it.

This should ring alarm bells for businesses that deal with sensitive or confidential documents, such as company accounts, audit data, commercial proposals and contracts – which in reality is nearly every business in the world.

Regaining data control

The first step towards eliminating the threat of metadata is for businesses to ensure their workforce understands what hidden data is and the dangers it poses. They also need to have systems in place that guarantee employees only share what they intend to with partners and customers.

>See also: Battling big data chaos with metadata

This will be a significant step towards creating a new generation of security-aware employees, who will actively practice risk-free sharing and collaboration. Free tools for knowledge workers enable IT groups to reveal the hidden danger that lurks within documents, by allowing users to scan documents to see what metadata they contain and the risk it poses.

Organisations must take action to regain control and stem the flow of highly confidential information leaving the enterprise. They need to protect their most valuable asset – their content – and implement solutions that enable them to keep control of their data, from how it is accessed and by whom, to which country or under which jurisdiction it resides.

Businesses that look at the bigger picture will see that the IT landscape is constantly changing. By continuously adapting to uphold privacy and trust, and providing employees with the applications they need to securely share and collaborate, these businesses will build a framework that encourages productivity and enables employees to reinvent the way they work to suit the demands of the modern workforce.


Sourced from Anthony Foy, CEO at Workshare

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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