PDF Security: Protect Your Sensitive Content and Information.
Portable Document Format files (PDFs) are a well-known and widely used file format, originally developed by Adobe to easily share and open electronic files on different devices and operating systems.
If you’re creating and sharing sensitive and/or confidential information in your PDF documents — or even just want to prevent others from directly copying your content — there are a range of security features that you should consider for your PDFs.
What you’ll learn
What you ultimately choose and use for your PDF security will depend on your document and data security needs. In this article, we’re providing some information on PDF security to help you:
- Understand some of the risks of sending unsecured PDFs.
- Learn some of the different PDF security features that you can choose from.
- Consider best practices that you can implement to manage your sensitive PDF files safely and securely in managing your PDF files with sensitive information.
Understand the risks of unsecured PDFs.
It’s important to consider the risks and security threats associated with the ever-increasing use of digital assets and documents that are shared among people and devices, like PDFs:
- Unauthorized access to confidential content in your files that can lead to significant damage and loss for your organization.
- Unsecured documents that breach privacy laws and your obligation to keep people’s information safe.
- Unprotected documents that are vulnerable to security threats such as malware and ransomware.
To manage your risk, use secure tools and practices to control and protect against unauthorized access and copying of sensitive document contents and data.
Choose your PDF security measures.
PDF security measures aren’t a one size fits all concept. Protecting PDF files from unauthorized access can be done in several ways – the key is to keep it consistent. Here are a few of the security measures available for PDFs:
Password protection and encryption.
When you set a password to open your PDF, this prevents any unauthorized person from opening your document. The contents are encrypted so no one other than the password holder(s) will be able to view or access it in any way.
You use permissions settings to restrict others from making changes to your PDF, such as editing, copying, and printing the content. A password on your permission settings will make sure that only those with the password can make certain changes.
Enhanced security settings.
Check you have “Enable Enhanced Security” enabled in your preference settings. This feature is available in all Adobe Acrobat products, including the free Adobe PDF Reader. Enabling enhanced security will give you a warning if your PDF document contains any malicious content that tries to interact with an untrusted location or file.
Watermarks and Headers & Footers.
Watermarks are text, a symbol, or your logo, inserted as lighter wording or a stamp across each page behind your text. Adding watermarks to your documents will flag to the reader the nature of your content. You might consider adding wording such as “confidential” or “copyright”.
Headers and footers in your documents can also be used to insert text that flags to readers that the contents are confidential, copyrighted, not for further distribution, etc. — or whatever is most appropriate for your content.
Remove sensitive content.
You might want to remove or redact sensitive content from a document both before you send it, and after you receive and extract any information or data you have collected in a PDF form. The redact feature in Acrobat Pro automatically removes sensitive information and items from PDF files, ensuring only the content you want visible to others remains.
If you are gathering sensitive information and data from others, as you might within a PDF form, make sure you include fields for your respondents to date and sign. Having someone sign a PDF assures you that the correct person has filled it out, and read and understood any information you may have included about the confidential and/or sensitive nature of the contents.
Digital IDs and certificate security
Securing your PDFs with Digital IDs and certificate security are other layers of protection often used by businesses when sharing sensitive information both inside and outside their organization. Certificate security features encrypt and validate digital signatures between parties. Digital signatures are mathematically encrypted and stored in secure locations. They include information such as the user's name, organization, email address, location, password, and user permissions. They can be time sensitive and set to expire after a set period.
Digital rights management
Digital rights management (DRM) is another way to secure documents. DRM works in conjunction with the type of licensing agreement you have and your security policies. By using DRM, you can control access and usage of PDFs for specific users, such as limiting access to a specified IP address or device. You can also undertake audits of changes and version histories. For making the most of secure servers off-premises, check out Acrobat with Document Cloud services.
Follow best practices for the secure use of PDFs.
PDFs are a convenient and secure way of sharing documents online and via email, however, there are best practices to follow to ensure that the sensitive information in your PDFs is properly secured.
- Use reputable and trusted encryption tools and software to ensure that no one can view the document without the password.
- Restrict access to documents using user authentication or verification as another effective way to secure documents. This involves assigning different levels of access rights to specific users. This will help keep a tab on who has access to the document and when.
- Limit permissions on who can modify or edit the contents of our documents. The more permissions a user has, the more chance there is they may use the document inappropriately.
- Make your mark on your document. Use features such as watermarks and headers and footers to further mark and identify the nature of the contents of your documents. This is particularly important if they are likely to be printed in paper form.
- Remove and redact sensitive content as needed and set expiry dates on passwords and access.
- Use digital certificates and digital IDs to encrypt passwords and the personal information of users accessing the files.
- Monitor and track document activities with a digital rights management system. This will allow you to keep track of who has accessed the document and when.
- Keep it consistent. When you decide which methods are appropriate for you and your organization, apply your PDF security policies consistently across your documents.
PDF security for sensitive information is a must.
PDF security is vital when it comes to protecting sensitive data. Set up the security measures and best practices mentioned above to ensure that your PDF files are secure and easily accessible by authorized users only. Unsure about which features may suit you best? Make the most of our free trial to explore what you can do.
Frequently asked questions.
What are some tips for password-protecting and encrypting a PDF?
Password-protecting a PDF will encrypt or scramble it so that it becomes unreadable without the proper password. This prevents unauthorized access and ensures the document is secure.
- Only use reputable and trusted PDF encryption tools and apps — especially for sensitive information.
- Choose a strong password and make sure it is kept safe. This will ensure that only the person who has access to the file can read or edit it.
- Activate permissions to restrict printing, copying, and editing of the content. Using a password here will prevent unauthorized users from modifying your document's contents.
- Set an expiration date to further limit access to sensitive information.
What are the benefits of using PDF files for sensitive data?
PDF files are a great choice for storing and sharing sensitive data because they can be shared between a range of devices and systems and have a range of security features available. PDFs provide encryption and password protection so that the data cannot be accessed without permission. PDFs can also be digitally signed with a secure signature to ensure the authenticity of the document. Other features such as watermarks, annotations, headers/footers, and text boxes can be used to identify the sensitive nature of any content. You can also redact sensitive information in PDFs, and set expiry dates on access.
Are there any potential risks associated with using PDFs for storing confidential information?
As with any electronic document that can be shared by email or online, there are potential risks associated with using PDFs for storing confidential information. Always take the time to learn about the different security and encryption features available and use them to protect your content and data from any unauthorized access, modification, and privacy breaches.