How to create secure documents with PDFs

19th Jun 2012 | 08:17

How to create secure documents with PDFs

How to protect your data using PDFs

Whenever you send out a word document of a brochure or product details on to the internet, you're effectively allowing other businesses to cut and paste your data and use it for themselves. However it doesn't need to be that way, by sending out a PDF you can protect your businesses' valuable intellectual property without compromising on design or the end-users ability to read and understand your content.

One of the main concerns with the digitisation of documents is their security. A digital file be it a Word brochure or a digital photograph can easily be copied and emailed to thousands of people. However if you save your documents as Portable Document Format (PDF) files you get an extra layer of security that can prevent unauthorised copying.

What level of security

The level of security you need with the PDFs your business produces will largely depend on how much access you want to grant a user to the information. Businesses often produce sensitive information that should only be read by upper-management for instance. It's possible to prevent certain people from opening any given PDF to protect the sensitive information from being read.

If your business is in publishing for instance – with many magazines now moving to PDF facsimiles of their paper cousins – preventing any copying and further distribution of these files could be of paramount importance.

You have a number of options when deciding which type of security to use with your PDFs including:

  • Encryption
  • Password protection
  • Limit or prevent printing
  • Prevent the copying or alteration of images and text

The level of security you want to use with your business' PDF will also be governed by how much you want to spend securing these files. Simple password security is built into Adobe's Acrobat PDF reader software and can be used for free by your customers, whereas more complex security for thousands of files could require a server-based solution, which will mean a financial investment by your company.

Security systems

The free Adobe Acrobat reader software has a host of security features built-in and the level and type of security depends on the version of Acrobat reader your recipient has. So your business has to decide in advance which versions of the PDF reader you would like to support. Using the latest version of Acrobat would seem to be a no-brainer but be warned, many businesses, particularly larger businesses don't always have the most up-to-date versions and may have locked-down to an old version. So if you clients in large corporates it would be best to check what version of Acrobat they're running.

Also, your business can grant permissions and access, which are not the same. A good example is granting one of your employees access to a PDF. With access to a PDF they can view the document, but can't save it or modify it in any way. Modifications would require permissions. Your business can offer both of these options by simply attaching two different passwords to the PDF.

Using passwords is the most common form of security used with PDF as these can be attached to a document when it is saved or exported. Both Windows and the Mac operating systems allow a level of security to be attached to PDFs.

Your business has to decide how much security it wishes to attach to a PDF and whether maintaining these security policies is worth the investment. Often, users won't take the trouble to crack a PDF unless there is a clear advantage to them. For general business use, password protection or restricting the ability to print and modify a PDF is usually good enough for most needs.

Choose your weapons

Adobe's own Acrobat has different levels of security built-in - a comparison of the different versions of Acrobat is available here - however there are other businesses who have specialised in security and PDFs and can offer your business alternatives to Adobe's security when creating and more importantly when distributing PDFs. Some of the commercial solutions that are currently available use DRM or Digital Rights Management to secure PDF files.

The level of DRM that can be used should also be carefully considered. Your business needs to balance its security requirements with the needs of its employees or customers. If the DRM is too strong, the security becomes a hindrance and not a benefit.

Some of the third party PDF security applications your business could consider include:


Protected PDF



Book Guard Pro

All of these systems allow varying levels of encryption or access to be set for each PDF they process. Always look closely at the actual levels of security on offer before buying for your business. And also consider the user interface for each application on your shortlist. Software that is difficult to set-up and use will often be abandoned leaving your PDFs vulnerable.

How to sell PDFs as digital downloads

Any business that wants to sell digital products in PDF format will have to consider the security of these documents. Selling your PDFs unsecured, offers every buyer the chance to place your files online for anyone to download for free. As already discussed, you could attach simple security such as passwords, but these can be cracked by anyone that spends some time searching the web for a hacking application.

The good news is that as digital products have grown in popularity, so the systems to protect these products have also developed in sophistication. Dedicated e-commerce services are now available specifically designed to help your business sell PDFs in a secure environment.

For instance, a PDF can have each of its pages embedded with a buyer's email address and payment information, which acts as a deterrent to copying. Other systems used links to a purchased product that expire after a set time preventing anyone other than the buyer downloading the PDFs they have just purchased. Some examples of e-commerce platforms for the sale of PDF-based products include:

Whichever system your business uses, PDFs can be secured to the level your enterprise needs. Highly sensitive information can be protected and only read by authorised people, with permissions and access now including a whole host of options with the latest version of Adobe's Acrobat. Third party applications can also deliver alternatives to the Adobe platform that could offer your business just the PDF security platform it's been looking for.

PDF security LockLizard Protected PDF CrypKey FileOpen Book Guard Pro e-junkie PayLoadz TRBCFeature TRBC
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