The Denver-based Privacy Foundation has revealed yet another way your actions can be tracked across the Web. A Microsoft (MSFT) Word document (or Excel spreadsheet or Powerpoint presentation) can contain an invisible graphic that phones home over the Net whenever you open the document. The glitch was widely reported today, but no one had much of an angle on it. All the reporters talked to Richard Smith, the researcher who identified the problem, and to someone at Microsoft. Only MSNBC's Bob Sullivan bothered to get a comment from an outside security expert.
Microsoft said the bug was no big deal, but even the bug's discoverer agreed that it was more like a feature amenable to being misused. Smith noted that corporations could use it to track confidential documents or copyrighted material.
The bug gets more invasive when combined with the use of Web cookies. Many outlets covered this wrinkle in some detail. TechWeb and CNET noted the Privacy Foundation's call for Microsoft to disable cookies whenever its Internet Explorer browser is used from inside another application, such as Word or Excel.
Microsoft was well prepared for the PR storm - Richard Smith had contacted them about the issue early in August - and most of their spokespeople were on message. The Boston Globe's reporter said Microsoft's Scott Culp "described the issue as 'much ado about very little.'" Here's CNET, quoting product manager Lisa Gurry: "We actually believe this is much ado about not much." MSNBC: "(Culp) described Smith's notice as 'much ado about very little.'" Here's Reuters, quoting program manager Eric Schultze: "It's really a lot to do about very little." Guess who didn't brush up his Shakespeare.
The Wall Street Journal contented itself with a short piece written by an unnamed staffer, who in five paragraphs managed to get two technical details wrong. - Keith Dawson
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Microsoft Word 'Bug' Enables Web Tracking