In Office Buzz: Check the E-mail on September 25, 2003, the New York Times reviews Office 2003, the latest Microsoft upgrade to the Office suite. The review is mixed at best. The columnist notes that “Microsoft has made shockingly few changes to Word, Excel and PowerPoint.” In contrast, Outlook has many new features. But the review is not the main point here…

The review notes that the corporate edition is “crawling with features that work only on networks.” One of those is “Information Rights Management” or IRM. This feature allows users to determine “who can do what” with documents and messages, including controlling access to documents (view or print) and specifying destruction dates. See Microsoft’s technical information on IRM for more information.

While protecting data has its benefits, lawyers need to be aware of who has a “master key” to open locked documents. Depending on how IRM works and is administered, it is possible that at least in some law firms, client organizations, or home offices, users will be able to create documents that are encrypted in ways that make it difficult or impossible to open them. As Peter Coffee points out in The Best DRM Policy May Be No Policy at All in eWeek’s September 8th issue, “rights management technologies represent yet another way for the enterprise to lock crucial information inside containers defined and controlled by others.”

Administered properly, IRM has the potential to protect privacy and confidentiality. But as Coffee suggests, problems may be lurking if users can create documents that cannot be easily opened. This would make it hard for law firms to access their own work product or to view documents in an e-discovery process.