How To Use PDF Files More Safely – How do I Circumvent PDF Editing Security?
Posted 2 years ago07 Jun 2018
What is PDF? PDF, short for Portable Document Format, was one the first file formats that allowed files saved in PDF to look and work exactly the same on all kinds of devices and operating software.
In the early 90’s, the world was facing this huge problem where opening a file on a device or platform other than the exact one the file was created on, messed up the formatting of the file. PDF was created as a solution to that problem.
A Brief History
PDF was first shown off at the trade show COMDEX in late 1992 and the product impressed the attendees and the press so much that it was named “best of the show”. PDF was created by none other than Adobe. In fact, it was the first major product that they created. And, contrary to the popular belief that it was Java or Photoshop that made Adobe famous, it was PDF that did it.
PDF was introduced along with Adobe’s Acrobat Reader (today known as simply, Adobe Reader) which had the functionality of allowing the reading and editing of PDF files. Another product that was introduced with them was the Acrobat Distiller, this software enabled the user to create PDF files.
Most people convert PDF to Doc in order to edit the files and then they just convert them back when they’re done editing. But Adobe Distiller, which has been combined into Adobe Acrobat now, kills the need for such a time-consuming process by allowing the user to directly edit PDF files.
At the time of its release, Adobe Acrobat Reader, which was necessary to have for anyone who wanted to access a PDF file, was priced at $50. And the Adobe Distiller, although needed by fewer people, had a personal edition priced at $695. Needless to say, these prices were a bit too much.
Also, quite a few companies of the time were trying to achieve the same things as PDF by introducing their own file formats hence making things even harder for Adobe.
Adobe made PDF available worldwide by early 1993. But, due to the tough competition and the steep prices, Adobe failed to set the market on fire with their Adobe Acrobat. The first few months saw a disappointing amount of sales and by late 1993, Adobe’s board of directors decided they had to do something about the situation.
In late 1993, Adobe made the extremely bold and a never heard of a decision to remove the price tag on their Adobe Acrobat Reader and provide it to everyone absolutely free of charge. The move took the industry by surprise and proved to be a big success. Not only did it enable Adobe to stop leaking cash but it also helped them set quite a few sales records.
It is estimated that by late 1990’s, Adobe’s Acrobat Reader was being used on more than a 100 million computers worldwide.
The involvement of IRS
Surprisingly, out of all the organizations and governmental institutes in the world, The United States’ Internal Revenue Service, had a big hand in PDF’s early success among the corporate world.
As aforementioned, in the early 1990’s, there weren’t exactly any file formats that allowed a file to work seamlessly on a different device or platform. Due to this issue, almost all kinds of brands, organizations, companies, and institutes around the world, had to rely on paper to keep the record of everything.
The IRS was also one of the many unfortunate institutes completely reliant on paper. But, paper dependency wasn’t something new to IRS, they were used to paper records and knew how to get things done, their main problem was a little complicated.
Every year, when tax filing season was just 2-3 months away, the IRS, with the help of US Postal Service, would mail out hundreds of millions of tax forms to US citizens.
In short, IRS had to work with a completely different government institute. Also, IRS was dealing a really complicated tax code at the time. And, IRS also had lots of different forms for different kinds of organizations and individuals. So you can imagine just how big of a logistical nightmare the whole situation was.
The whole process wasn’t just causing numerous delays in tax filing but, it was also consuming lots of government resources. As soon as PDF was released, the IRS almost immediately started using it. As PDF displays the file exactly how it will look in its printed form, the format proved to be quite useful for the IRS.
The internet’s role in PDF’s history
The troubles for IRS weren’t over because one key feature was still missing from PDF, the internet. By 1996, ISPs finally became mainstream and also, Adobe released the version 3.0 of Acrobat which finally linked PDF with web browsers.
As aforementioned, the IRS had started using PDF almost immediately after its release. By the time version, 3.0 came around, most of IRS’ forms were already in PDF format and that made sending out tax forms via email and filing taxes via the internet a lot easier. 1996 was the year that changed tax filing and it has never been the same.
Soon after IRS started relying on PDF, more and more government institutes started using it. And, as the private sector was reliant on paper as well, they too decided cut their paper and record storage space expenses by adopting PDF. But, it’s important to remember that it was the IRS that was the first big entity that adopted PDF and it’s because of IRS’ adoption of PDF that the file format found huge and early success in the corporate world.
By the time 21st century began, PDF was everywhere. From offices to schools and universities, if there was one file format everyone could rely on, it was PDF. In fact, web browsers started adding built-in PDF readers of their own in a bid to attract more users by providing the best PDF reader available online.
As PDF was dominating the corporate world and Adobe wasn’t charging even a single penny for their Acrobat Reader, in 2008, Adobe decided to standardize PDF as an open format.
July 1st, 2008 was the date when Adobe gave up the control over PDF and released the format as an open standard, published by the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) as ISO 32000-1:2008. The control of the specification was given to ISO industry experts committee.
Moreover, Adobe published a public patent license to PDF’s ISO specification (ISO 32000-1) granting it absolutely royalty-free rights for all patents owned by Adobe that are needed to make and work on PDF files. On July 28th, 2017, PDF 2.0 was published by the ISO under the specification ISO 32000-2.
PDF as a Secure File Format
The main purpose behind PDF’s creation was to introduce a format that allowed files to work exactly the same on all sorts of computer platform and devices. But, Adobe also gave a lot of importance to making the format extremely safe and secure for its users. A PDF file can be encrypted for added security or digitally signed for authentication.
There are 2 added security features provided by a standard Acrobat PDF. One is a user password feature. What this feature does is that it encrypts the file created by the user and asks the user to assign a password (decryption key). Once encryption is complete and a password has been assigned, the file cannot be opened without entering the password.
The other security feature is the owner password. This feature does not encrypt the file instead, it adds restrictions for all those who access the file without the password. The restrictions can range from disabling the print feature to disabling all file manipulation and editing features.
But, the owner password can easily be removed by a number of free online software and hence, the owner password feature is not really considered to be very safe. Fortunately, there a number of commercial security solutions which allow the “owner” stricter information right management.
Other than these, PDF files also keep an electronic signature of the devices that they are accessed through. It’s these reliable security features that make PDF one of the most dependable file formats. In fact, PDF’s strong security features have also made it the most used file storage format among legal circles.
Bypassing PDF’s security features
Some PDF files may be secured. You can neither convert PDF to Doc if the file is secured and nor can you edit it. When faced with such a situation, most people would probably lose hope and give up. But, there is one trick that just might, well… do the trick for you.
Full disclosure, this trick will not unlock the secure PDF file. But, what it will do is that it will create an exact copy of the secured PDF which you can then edit and modify in whatever way you see fit. Still interested? Let’s get started!
The first thing you need to do is open the secure PDF file and Adobe Acrobat Reader. Now, see the file menu in top left corner? Click on it and then click on the “print” option. In the print window, go through the printers list, select “Microsoft XPS Document Writer” and click on print.
The reason for selecting this particular printer driver is that if you try to use Adobe’s own PDF printer driver, it will detect a secure file is being exported to a fresh file and it’ll block the move. Even with third-party PDF print drivers, almost all of them will fail to complete the process for one reason or another.
But with “Microsoft XPS Document Writer”, you will completely bypass detection and an XPS file will be created. Now open the XPS file and repeat the printing process but print in PDF now. This will create a PDF copy of the file which you are then free to edit.
Making PDFs More Secure
First things first, no matter which PDF reader/editor you use, it’s important that you keep it up to date at all times. Most of the PDF readers have the built-in update feature. Always use the built-in feature to ensure the update is genuine and safe. Also, set your PDF reader to automatically update to free yourself of having to manually update every time and so that your PDF reader updates as soon as an update is available.
If downloading a player for the first time, download from the company’s official website. And needless to say, always use a good and up to date antivirus software and never open PDF files on shady sites or those downloaded from suspicious sources.
Attacks from PDF files are of two types; those that come from opening a PDF file in the browser and those that come from opening the PDF file in the PDF reader on your computer.
In the first case, rely only on those web browsers that have a built-in PDF reader. Get rid of the browser that uses third-party plug-ins to access a PDF file. In some cases, even if the browser has a built-in PDF viewer, some plug-ins might still have access to the file. Get rid of these plug-ins.
In the second category, when viewing PDF files on the PDF reader on your computer, you can use Adobe’s Protected View or its equivalent if you are using a different PDF reader. What this feature will do is it will make exploits a lot more difficult by disabling some of the features like printing and file sharing.
Remember that this feature is off by default and you will have to turn it on first before opening a file you do not feel so good about.
As always, no amount of security features can ever make your computer or device completely fool-proof but, following these tips will definitely take you really close to it.