Managing Protected View in Microsoft Excel

Written by David Ringstrom

Anyone choosing to export reports from QuickBooks Online to Excel 2010 or later is likely familiar with Excel’s Protected View feature. You may also encounter this feature when you open an Excel spreadsheet that has been emailed to you. Protected View is intended to allow you to safely open Excel spreadsheets in a view-only mode that cannot harm your computer. Excel spreadsheets can sometimes contain malicious programming code or data connections, hence the need for Protected View.

However, security measures often solve one problem and create new ones. As you’ve likely noticed, you cannot make any changes to a spreadsheet or use any Excel features until you click Enable Editing on each email attachment or report. In this article I’ll describe how you can turn off Excel’s Protected View feature in most instances, while still being able to purposefully open spreadsheets of unknown provenance in Protected View mode.

By default, Microsoft Excel 2010 and later looks askance when you open the following types of spreadsheets:

  • Spreadsheets opened from the Internet, such as those hosted on a web site, or generated by an online platform such as QuickBooks Online or an online e-mail system such as Gmail.
  • Outlook attachments, such as spreadsheets that have been emailed to you.
  • I’ve even seen situations where Microsoft Excel mistakenly construes an organization’s local network as the Internet, which then means Protected View is triggered for every single document a user opens from a network location.

Figure 1 shows what happens when a spreadsheet has been opened in Protected View:

  • Excel’s Message Bar displays the security prompt shown in Figure 1.
  • All worksheet cells are protected.
  • Most of the commands within Excel’s menus are disabled.

In effect, the entire spreadsheet is trapped under glass until you click Enable Editing on the Message Bar.

Microsoft Excel Protected View

Figure 1: Protected View is intended to empower you to review a spreadsheet before potentially exposing your computer to security risks.

The words Protected View will appear both in Excel’s title bar, as shown in Figure 1, and in the message bar as well. If you either purposefully or accidentally close the message bar, you still have a means by which you can exit Protected View, as shown in Figure 2:

  1. Select Excel’s File.
  2. Select the Info.
  3. Click Enable Editing.
Microsoft Excel Protected View

Figure 2: The Info section of Excel’s File menu allows you to manage Protected View.

The downside of Protected View is that it contributes to what I term the “death by 1,000 cuts” experience in Excel where we unwittingly subject ourselves to unnecessary repetitive actions. If you’re cognizant of the types of documents that you open in Excel then you can safely turn off Protected View, especially if you confirm a couple of other security settings in Excel that I’ll share.

If you’re presently working with a document in Protected View, then you can click the Protected View Settings link shown in Figure 2 to get to the area of Excel where we manage this setting. Alternatively, Figure 3 shows another path to these settings:

  1. Select Excel’s File.
  2. Click the Options.
  3. Select Trust Center along the left-hand side of the Excel Options dialog box.
  4. Click the Trust Center Settings button on the right-hand side of the Options dialog box.
  5. Select Protected View from within the Trust Center dialog box.
  6. If you’re comfortable doing so, uncheck the “Enable Protected View for Files Originating From the Internet” checkbox. This will speed up the process of working with files that you export from QuickBooks Online and other cloud-based software.
  7. You may also wish to uncheck the “Enable Protected View for Outlook Attachments” checkbox.
  8. Everyone should leave the “Enable Protected View for Files Located in Potentially Unsafe Locations” option enabled.
Microsoft Excel Protected View

Figure 3: Protected View settings are buried within Excel’s Trust Center within the Excel Options dialog box.

Whether or not you opt to disable Protected View, there are a couple of other settings that you should review within Excel’s Trust Center:

  1. Choose Macro Settings within Excel’s Trust Center dialog box.
  2. Ensure that your Macro settings are set to “Disable All Macros With Notification.”

Macros are programming code that can be embedded within Excel spreadsheets. You may have received spam emails with spreadsheets or Word documents attached that purportedly contain unpaid invoices. The hackers relying on this social engineering method are hoping that you’ll blithely open the document, which can be set to launch programming code automatically when the file opens. The “Disable All Macros with Notification” prompt causes a macro security prompt to appear in place of Protected View so that you can purposefully decide whether or not to enable macros.

Microsoft Excel Protected View

Figure 4: Macro security settings in Excel should be set to Disable All Macros With Notification to minimize the risk of viruses from infected spreadsheets.

  1. Choose External Content within Excel’s Trust Center dialog box.
  2. Security Settings for Data Connections should be set to “Prompt User About Data Connections.”
  3. Security Settings for Workbook Links should be set to “Prompt User On Automatic Update for Workbook Links.”
  4. Click OK to close the Trust Center.
  5. Click OK to close the Excel Options dialog box.
Microsoft Excel Protected View

Figure 5: Workbook links and data connections can also present security risks on your computer.

About the author

David Ringstrom

David Ringstrom, CPA, is the president of Accounting Advisors, Inc., an Atlanta-based spreadsheet and database consulting firm he started in 1991. Throughout his career, David has spoken at conferences on Excel, and he currently leads dozens of webinars each year on Excel, QuickBooks, and other software. He has served as the technical editor for over 25 books, including several editions in Wiley’s QuickBooks for Dummies and Quicken for Dummies series. In addition to writing for QuickBooks and Beyond, David is the Tech Editor at Large for AccountingWEB and Going Concern. He also offers live webcasts and self-study courses through CPE Link. His freelance articles on spreadsheets have been published as far afield as Pakistan. During training sessions, you’ll often hear David state, “Either you work Excel, or it works you!”

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