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Tech Matters: How to protect your documents

By Leslie Meredith - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Jun 22, 2022

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Leslie Meredith

You may have documents that contain sensitive or proprietary information that could cause trouble if they fell into the hands of a competitor or just someone who might share your personal information without your permission or knowledge. Depending on which program you used to create the document, there are several ways to protect it.

Document protection is a wise precaution and one you should take the time to employ. In Europe, it’s the law thanks to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that came into force in May 2018. The London-based company I work for has a dedicated GDPR team to make sure all employees who handle any documents with personally identifiable information in them follow strict procedures to limit who can access these documents. If an EU-based company is found to be noncompliant, stiff fines can be imposed.

In the U.S., there is no similar federal legislation, but Utah was the fourth state to enact a data privacy law, known as the Utah Consumer Privacy Act. It was passed in March of this year and will go into effect Dec. 31, 2023. While it is far more business-friendly than new laws in California, Virginia and Colorado and the GDPR — no fines for companies, instead they can fix alleged violations within 30 days — it’s a big step in the right direction for Utahns.

It’s easy to protect your documents with a password, especially in Microsoft Office products. In Word, Excel or PowerPoint for Windows, open the file you want to protect, then click “File” in the top menu and then “Info.” Select the “Protect Workbook” box and choose “Encrypt with Password.” Enter a password in the Password box, and then select OK. You’ll then retype the password in the “Reenter Password” box, and then select OK. There are no restrictions on the passwords you use regarding length, characters or numbers. Passwords are case-sensitive.

Unlike a password you use on an account, there is no way to retrieve a document password from Microsoft. If you forget the password at a later date, you will not be able to open the document. You may want to write the password down and save it in a safe place or keep a copy of the unprotected document in the cloud or on a USB drive, stored separately and safely.

There may come a time when you want to remove a password from a document. To do this, open the document with your password and then simply go into File, Info, Password Protect to see the window where you originally entered your password. Highlight the dots that obscure the password characters and hit delete. Make sure to save changes.

For Apple office apps, the procedure to password-protect documents is similar to Microsoft docs. With your Keynote, Pages or Numbers document open, select “File” and then “Set Password.” Here, you will be able to add a hint to your password and opt to have Apple add it to your Keychain (Apple’s built-in password manager) in case you forget it.

Google Docs does not have an individual document password protection feature. The protection stems from the fact that the docs are stored in the cloud and you need a password to access your account. When you share a document you can specify individuals who must then log in with their own account to view your document. If this is not sufficient, you can bring a Google document into Microsoft and then password protect it as described above. You could also save sensitive files in Dropbox, which does offer individual file protection. With your document open, click “Settings” and then change “Who has access” to “People with password” — so both a unique URL and a password are required for access.

Sometimes, you may be more concerned about someone changing your document rather than unauthorized access. You have several choices to accomplish this. First, in Microsoft Office, instead of adding a password, you can make your document read-only. Choose that option and the document you share with others will not be editable. You can also save your document as a PDF, which will prevent those without Adobe Acrobat from making changes. With Adobe Acrobat, you can also password protect your PDF, prevent printing and page extraction, as well as a number of other functions.

Leslie Meredith has been writing about technology for more than a decade. As a mom of four, value, usefulness, and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at asklesliemeredith@gmail.com.

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