Why PDF password protection does not work

Can Adobe PDF password protection restrict document sharing and usage of documents?  Here we explain why this is not possible.

With the constantly improving and evolving digital environment, security threats such as document sharing, restricted usage, and malicious activities are always increasing. Organizations can benefit from having an alternative security solution to keep their data and documents secure. Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF) has proven to be a more secure alternative than other document sharing services, as it offers advanced security features like digital signatures, watermarking, and encryption.


PDFs allow for the prevention of copying, printing, or editing data and properties, allowing for restricted access and usage of documents, and keeping documents safe from malicious acts and distribution. Additionally, because they are optimized to be shared across various systems, viewable anywhere and on any device, PDFs provide users with ease of access and portability.

Consequently, organizations can benefit greatly from utilizing PDF security solutions when it comes to document sharing and unrestricted usage. For example, in a study conducted by Teradata Consulting Inc. and based on responses from over 400 IT professionals from the corporate and government sectors, it was reported that almost 25% of respondents said their departments use “no controls to prevent unauthorized sharing of documents”—a number that proves that there is a need for additional protection when it comes to safeguarding documents and data (“Document Management Survey Results – Sharing of Documents,” 2013).

Another survey conducted by Trustwave shows that out of more than 900 respondents only 13% indicated they implemented any security measures to control access and sharing in PDFs (“Trustwave

2015 Global Security Report: Protecting Sensitive Data with Unrestricted PDF Usage—Security Risks Linger on Existing Controls,” 2015). These statistics show that there are still opportunities for improvement when it comes to securing PDF files and making them more secure and accessible for organizations.

However, despite the many benefits of PDF files compared to traditional paper documents, some researchers have found issues with security measures in PDF documents.  Here we now explain what PDF protection measures are available.

Adobe PDF Password Protection and Certificate Encryption provide increased security for documents to restrict access and control how the document is used. All password protected PDFs are encrypted by default to protect the integrity and authenticity of the document’s contents. Encryption uses an algorithm to convert data into a secret code that can only be decrypted using the right password or key.

Password protection makes a user to use enter an authorized password to open the document, while certificate encryption only gives access to users with the correct private key. This ensures the security of the documents, protecting them from outside access but still allows users to access the documents they need.

However, there are limitations to this type of security. Once the document is sent to someone else, the receiver has full control of the document, including the ability to remove the password or decrypt the PDF, and print, edit and share the document without authorization.  This is because any permissions or restrictions added to the PDF to prevent printing, editing, etc. are not protected by encryption and can be easily removed using free online tools or ignored by various PDF readers.

Therefore, while Adobe PDF Password Protection can be beneficial, the user should be mindful of the potential limitations.  Although passwords provide an additional layer of security for PDF files, they don’t offer a comprehensive solution to prevent users from editing, printing, copying, or even modifying the content in the PDF. Users can easily bypass the restrictions put in place using simple tools to circumvent security measures altogether.

In addition, if a recipient cannot view a PDF file because it is password protected, they may still be able to open it if they have the right software installed.  For example, if a PDF is locked with a password, it can be cracked using password recovery software to remove it. However, if it is encrypted with a strong password, it will be time consuming to crack.

Therefore, a password should not be considered a substitute for other security measures such as DRM or Digital Rights Management, which is effective in preventing unauthorized viewing and sharing of PDFs.  PDF DRM can lock PDF files to devices to prevent sharing and they restrict use (copying, editing, printing, etc.) using dedicated secure PDF readers that cannot be compromised.  Some PDF DRM solutions even prevent screenshots and enable creators to add unique watermarks that identify users.

Bottom line, most organizations should focus on implementing a combination of security measures to protect sensitive information in their PDF files. These include encryption and DRM controls, as well as dynamic watermarking and device and location restrictions to prevent sharing.

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