'Dodgy-dossier syndrome' rife in the workplace

The vast majority of business documents are adapted from something else, but few people realise just how much sensitive information their work contains about the real source - as some have found out to their cost

Two-thirds of knowledge workers are unaware of the dangers that metadata contained within their documents can pose to themselves and their businesses, according to new research.

Ninety percent of business documents are adapted from other documents, but 68 percent of people do not know that their work often contains information about the source of the document, the researchers found.

UK software company Workshare, which commissioned the research, refers to the problem as 'dodgy-dossier syndrome' after the infamous UK government report on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, a significant portion of which was found to have been copied from a 12-year-old PhD thesis written by student Ibrahim al-Marashi.

More pertinent examples, perhaps, include the European Commission's draft directive on software patents, which was found to contain as its author the name of Francisco Mingorance, who is European director of public policy for the Business Software Alliance -- a prominent lobbying organisation that has pushed for more rights for copyright holders. Mingorance later said he did not know how his name came to be associated with the document, but by then the damage was done.

Workshare's research found that only 6 percent of people think of metadata as data that tracks and identifies changes, while 39 percent think of it as hidden document content. Just over half of respondents -- 52 percent -- think of metadata as being data that describes the document. "There are inherent dangers due to document metadata, which identifies historical changes within a document, author histories and document origins," said the company. "Awareness of the term 'metadata' is low and fewer still know of its dangers."

Furthermore, there is no standard practice when contributing to a document, with 'document anarchy' making management difficult, and only 14 percent of companies feeling that they can control how contributors give feedback to critical documents on time and in the correct format.

More business users are contributing to shared documents than ever before," said Workshare European vice president Andrew Pearson, "and companies are losing control of what happens inside the process. Changes in the way organisations work has made this problem more acute in recent year with restructuring and flattening of the organisation, so brought these problems to the fore."