Latham regrets leaving his mark

Latham regrets leaving his mark

By Rodney Appleyard

How a recent IT glitch by the Labor party exposed some of the secrets behind their real motives on important policies in Australia. Rodney Appleyard reports on how they could have been more IT savvy in hindsight.

We all enjoy watching politicians getting egg on their faces, but we wouldn't expect our possible future Prime Minister to be left embarrassed because of a rudimentary clerical error on a simple Word document.

Mark Latham delivered his opening speech as party leader to the ALP National conference in February this year, which went down well with supporters and media observers alike.

But unfortunately for the Labor party, an embarrassing gaffe on its part meant the impact of the speech was blunted somewhat, as the Liberal party were able to take advantage of this embargoed speech by leaking the speech amendments-which were accidentally left hidden within the document-to the media.

Needless to say, the uncovering of the track changes and crucial amendments caused major embarrassment to the Labor party.

The Liberals discovered deleted phrases and inserts from other politicians, which made the speech seem less genuine and personal. The instinctive passion was stripped from the speech. The public was left with the impression that the speech was too calculated and phrases were toned down so that people would not be offended.

The Liberals noticed that Simon Crean wrote a lot of the extracts too, and some of his strong wording was taken out. In addition, changes were made to weaken personal attacks on John Howard.

The incident gave the Liberals fodder to show that the new ALP was not as polished as it made out. They essentially blew away the rhetoric and exposed careless attitudes towards policy.

This problem of revealing track changes on Word documents is an old one, but organisations worldwide need to be aware of the dangers it still poses. In some cases, accidental inaccuracies, or the uncovering of historic information, such as this one, can cost a company millions of dollars, and could also result in legal action being taken.

Garry Meikle, the National Applications Manager at legal firm Minter Ellison, says his company has a policy of sending out all attachments solely in a PDF format to all clients because it protects them against security breaches such as this.

He explains what could happen in a worse case scenario if documents were sent out in a Word format instead of a PDF one.

"We are still using Office '97 in our office, and we experience problems in receiving Word documents from companies that use more up to date versions of it. I remember once I received quotes for new software, but the amount sent to me from the company PC was different from the amount I saw on my desktop when I opened up the attachment in Word.

"Basically, what happened was that the tables in the Word document made accidental calculation errors during the process of switching between different versions of Word. We cannot afford for these errors to be made in a law firm such as ours. Our work relies heavily on getting the facts exact inside documents when we distribute them to our clients. When we send out information about important mergers, it is imperative that these errors are ironed out. The consequences of a miscalculation being written up in documents about mergers between companies could be devastating if tens of thousands of dollars are involved. Not only is it embarrassing, but we could also be liable to litigation."

It is due to such factors that Minter Ellison decided to use what it considers to be a much safer solution for its requirements-Adobe's Acrobat PDF software.

"It has all of the security settings we need in order to feel confident that documents will be sent out carrying the correct information, free from the opportunity for people to tamper with the track history of past amendments. It is also a very robust system, exempt from corruption risks."

Adobe has recently been making a concerted effort to target the enterprise market to use the PDF format as a standard for sending important documents. It is even in talks currently with the government about ideas to improve the way it manages its documents, which will come as something of a relief to Mark Latham should he win the election. Adobe is planning a way to provide secure final form documents for the whole of the government.

Peter Doolan, of Adobe's government and enterprise department, believes the Latham gaffe was a wake up call for enterprises as well as the political parties to use more secure systems.

"Companies in the corporate area have also started thinking about new solutions, as a reaction to this high profile mistake. These solutions need to ensure that final form documentation can be distributed into the public arena without carrying hidden or unwanted data within it, whether that is revealing mark-ups, specific metadata, or identifying which department authenticated the original document. This example with Mark Latham has really set the cat amongst the pigeons."

Doolan adds that on the plus side, it has promoted the PDF format as a reliable standard for final form documentation, because the hidden metadata and mark-up comments can be excluded with 100 percent certainty.

"This situation has also made CIOs realise that document policies are not in place as a strategic initiative. Customer facing documentation is becoming more and more prolific, and people are beginning to realise the pitfalls of not having a document policy in place. So they are making fresh moves now to change this. We've put technology in place that takes care of the dynamic changes to documents. For instance, once a document has been published, our system can revoke it. We can also change permissions needed for access and verify who has printed or emailed a particular document. This audit path keeps track of every document and increases the intelligence for users in the pursuit of better document management. So security for the government and large corporations is now at the centre of the radar, instead of just being to the left of it."

The solution described by Doolan is called the Intelligent Document Platform, and it relies on the PDF format as the vehicle to connect with these security settings. 600 million copies of Adobe Acrobat reader are deployed worldwide, so it is a popular format which many people already have access to. Password protection functionality can be attached to the PDF too through Adobe's Intelligent Document Platform. PDFs can also be encrypted, so that people cannot change the documentation once it is published. In addition documents can be certified, providing an opportunity for the original source to be identified and spoof senders to be exposed.

Doolan adds: "Somebody recently sent a release into the public arena, which they pretended was from Emulex. It contained a lot of lies and negative comments about the company. As a result, their market value dropped by a billion dollars for a couple of days because of this fake press release about bad news. This raised the issue of ensuring that your content comes from the appropriate source. So there is a need to make sure documents are not only secure, but also verified."

It seems that the ALP's mistake has actually done some good in terms of making organisations realise that they need to take better control over the management of their documentation. Big strides have already been made in Australia towards creating paperless offices, but perhaps now is the time to establish better ways to manage the security of electronic documents, as a well considered document policy needs to be in place within organisations to prevent embarrassing leaks like this from happening again.

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