Googling for WMD

Microsoft Word accidentally reveals Iraq-dossier writers

Remember the infamous dossier that the British government assembled back in the spring — purporting to outline Saddam Hussein’s lockhold on weapons of mass destruction? Remember how Colin Powell waved it around during his UN presentation? And then remember how the document was later discovered to have been plagiarized — down to the mistakes in spelling and punctuation — from a grad-student paper?

It seems the detective work behind that scandal was made possible by Microsoft Word. IT geek Richard Smith was the one who uncovered the plagiarism, by analyzing the invisible track marks that Microsoft Word leaves whenever it opens or saves a document. He took the dossier off a British government web site where it was publicly available, and looked at its “revision log”. Smith describes the process on his personal web site:

Most Word document files contain a revision log which is a listing of the last 10 edits of a document, showing the names of the people who worked with the document and the names of the files that the document went under. Revision logs are hidden and cannot be viewed in Microsoft Word. However I wrote a small utility for extracting and displaying revision logs and other hidden information in Word .DOC files.

It is easy to spot the following four names in the revision log of the Blair dossier:

P. Hamill
J. Pratt
A. Blackshaw
M. Khan

In addition, the “cic22” in the first three entries of the revision log stands for “Communications Information Centre,” a unit of the British Government.

Smith passed his findings on to a friend, and they eventually got to a reporter who recognized the names of officials — including the personal assistant to Tony Blair’s press secretary. Blair is probably banning all copies of Microsoft Word from government as we speak.

It is, of course, one of the most remarkable things about Word: It leaves its fingerprints over everything it touches. Word is like a software version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle — because the mere process of opening a document to read it irrevocably changes the document before it even hits the screen. Word is not merely a vehicle for reading and writing letters; it’s an active participant, an author/editor who can’t stop messing with your text. This is partly why Corel’s WordPerfect has a lockhold on the legal sector. When WordPerfect opens a document — even one authored with a very old version of WordPerfect — it doesn’t actually alter any specs on the document. This is incredibly important in forensics, because if you want to use something as legal evidence, you have to prove you haven’t messed with it yourself. If lawyers were to use Word to open crucial documents, they would risk making those documents inadmissible in court — because when Word tries to open a file made with an older version of Word, it immediately begins giving it a nasty little nip-and-tuck in an attempt to “improve” it and bring it up to 8.0 or 9.0 or 67.0 or whatever the heck version Word is currently on.

It reminds me of a game I used to play with my geekier friends: What’s Your Favorite Old Version Of Word? Or rather, what’s the last version you used that didn’t overwhelm you with a million useless features? For me, it’s Word 4.0 — a fine, fine vintage from circa 1995. It had all the stuff I needed — like word count and basic formatting — but none of the studied inanity of today’s “Clippy”-style bloatware, which has transformed Word from being a terrific word processor to being a finely-tuned experiment in irritation worthy of Stanley Milgram.

How about you guys? Which is your favorite version of Word?

(Thanks to Nathan at The Age for pointing me towards this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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