How To Check If a File Has Been Edited

29 June 2022 by Ross eDiscovery production

Takeaway: To track a file’s edits, you’ll examine hidden file ‘metadata’ to see who’s been working on a file and what they’ve changed. You can check this metadata using specialized tools or simply looking at a file’s ‘properties.’ However, to go a step further and protect inadvertent metadata changes, you’ll want to review your files exclusively via a reliable eDiscovery application.

All files come imprinted with bonus information called ‘metadata.’ It’s like a digital footprint tracking a file’s history.

A file’s visible contents are only a portion of all its associated data. That’s because your computer tags it with a live digital footprint recording each file alteration. You won’t usually see this footprint (called ‘metadata’) unless you know where to look, but it stores valuable information. For instance, it’ll tell you who created a file and when, the name of the computer it was created on, if there’s any hidden text, if there are links to external files, and more. Learn more about metadata.

It’s this metadata that your computer uses to track a document’s changes.

Every time someone edits a file, your software updates the file’s metadata. That’s how it creates collaboration tools like ‘track changes,’ comments and annotations, version histories, and more. And it’s how you can assess if a file is uncorrupted for something like eDiscovery. So, the trick to spotting edits is to know how to access the right metadata.

Ideally, you’ll want to review metadata using an application’s inbuilt tools.

Many applications have tools to gather metadata and use it to track a document’s edits. For instance:

1. Microsoft Word’s ‘track changes’ & ‘compare.’

Word has two features to track edits.

  1. Track changes. When you turn ‘track changes’ on, all further edits get recorded as colored markup. For instance, if someone deletes any text, it gets crossed out, not removed – allowing you to spot the changes. And if they add text, it’ll appear in a different color. To activate this feature, go to Word’sReview’ tab, and select the track changes option. You’ll then have a range of markup options to choose from.
  2. Compare. Even if someone doesn’t turn on track changes, Word lets you reverse engineer the ‘track changes’ feature by comparing the new (edited) document to the original. Just go to the Review tab and select Compare from the dropdown menu. In the dialog box that appears, choose the documents you want to compare and click OK. Word will compare them, spot the changes, and display them as colored markups (as with track changes).

2. Google Docs’ ‘version history’ tool.

Google Docs tracks edits by default, so you don’t have to activate any settings. Just go to the File tab, select Version history, then See version history, and finally choose the latest version of the file to see all the changes and who made them. (Note: The document’s creator will need to give you editing permission before you can use this feature.)

3. Adobe Acrobat’s ‘compare’ tool for PDFs

Adobe Acrobat Pro DC lets you compare PDFs by doing the following:

  1. Open the original PDF.
  2. In the View tab, choose Compare Files.
  3. Use the New File option that pops up to choose the PDF you want to compare the original to.
  4. Click the blue Compare button to view Acrobat’s report comparing the documents side-by-side, highlighting all the changes.

Note: You can add a digital signature to make these ‘compare’ options more accurate.

A digital signature is a document-authentication technique that works by creating a pair of mathematically-linked software ‘keys.’ The first key (called a digital certificate) is private, allowing the document creator to ‘sign’ and encrypt the document. Meanwhile, the second key is public, and the reader uses it to open and decrypt the document. (All this happens behind the scenes, so you’ll only have to sign or open the document while the software handles the rest.) Digital signatures perfectly complement Word/Adobe’s Compare feature because they set a permanent reference point for any before/after comparisons. So, here’s how to set them up.

  • In Microsoft Word, open the document, click the File tab, choose Protect Document, and select Add a Digital Signature from the dropdown box. Learn more about digitally signing a Microsoft document.
  • In Adobe, go to the Tools tab, scroll down to Forms and Certificates, hover over the Certificates dropdown menu, and select Open. Here, choose Configure New Digital ID to set up the signature, and then select the Sign option to finalize the digital signature.

You don’t need to make things this complicated, though. For a quick peek at a file’s metadata, you can explore its ‘Properties.’

You can peek at a file’s metadata even without specialized tools. You won’t get as much conclusive evidence of edits, but you could pick up a few valuable clues. For instance, the ‘last opened’ and ‘last used by’ metadata fields could help you piece together who accessed the file last and when they did it – which might hint at what they might have changed. Here’s how to do this:

  • Microsoft Word: You can check a Word document’s properties by opening it and going to its File tab. Here, there’s an Info section in which you’ll see a Properties column with all the document’s metadata entries. (In the same Info section, there’s also an Inspect Document feature that gives you a thorough summary of the types of metadata available. You’ll only see the metadata fields, though, not the actual entries.)
  • PDFs. Open the PDF, and in the File tab, click Properties, then Description.
  • Images. Right-click the image file and choose the Properties option. Here, you can explore the different tabs to find the metadata you need. (Note, you can ‘right-click’ Word documents and PDFs and choose the Properties option as a shortcut instead of opening them and going to the File tab.)

All this metadata is fragile, though. So for formal document reviews, you’ll want to use specialized eDiscovery software.

Metadata is easy to access and equally easy to destroy. For instance, you can mistakenly alter some metadata fields just by booting up a computer, copying a file, or forwarding it in an email. To prevent this, you’ll need specialized eDiscovery software that can open and explore files without changing metadata.

GoldFynch is an easy-to-use eDiscovery service that can help you protect vital metadata.

The GoldFynch eDiscovery subscription service is designed to simplify document reviews and productions for small and midsize law firms. It protects metadata, has a robust set of document-review tools, and is low maintenance. For instance:

  • It costs just $25 a month for a 3 GB case: That’s significantly less than most comparable software. With GoldFynch, you know what you’re paying for exactly – its pricing is simple and readily available on the website.
  • It’s easy to budget for. GoldFynch charges only for storage (processing files is free). So, choose from a range of plans (3 GB to 150+ GB) and know up-front how much you’ll be paying. You can upload and cull as much data as you want, as long as you stay below your storage limit. And even if you do cross the limit, you can upgrade your plan with just a few clicks. Also, billing is prorated – so you’ll pay only for the time you spend on any given plan. With legacy software, pricing is much less predictable.
  • It takes just minutes to get going. GoldFynch runs in the cloud, so you use it through your web browser (Google Chrome recommended). No installation. No sales calls or emails. Plus, you get a free trial case (0.5 GB of data and a processing cap of 1 GB) without adding a credit card.
  • It’s simple to use. Many eDiscovery applications take hours to master. GoldFynch takes minutes. It handles a lot of complex processing in the background, but what you see is minimal and intuitive. Just drag-and-drop your files into GoldFynch, and you’re good to go. Plus, you get prompt and reliable tech support.
  • Access it from anywhere, and 24/7. All your files are backed up and secure in the Cloud.

Want to find out more about GoldFynch?