How to Break a Secured PDF

Written By

Sean Goldstein

What is a Secured PDF?

The definition of a secured or password-protected PDF (portable document format), according to Adobe's website, is a PDF which either requires a password to open or a password to change or remove restricted operations. One of our recent cases appears to render this definition as false. 

An Example in Higher Ed: Unlocking a Secured PDF to Modify Test Scores

We recently received a case in which an individual was able to modify his/her standardized test results, while applying to a post-graduate program. The results for this particular admissions test are provided to test takers in a secured PDF forward for security purposes. The first issue with this is obvious, as falsified scores lead to misrepresentation of a candidate's capabilities. Another issue to consider is ethics and how much you would want to work with/for an individual with such an off base moral compass.

Fortunately, the collegiate program which this individual was applying to was meticulous in its candidate review and followed up with the test administrator. The review board for the standardized test confirmed that the scores shared with the school were not consistent with what was in their system and realized something needed to be done. Once engaged, Capsicum Group was able to confirm through review/investigation and reverse engineering of the document that it had been manipulated.

Updating Data Security to Prevent Secured PDF Breaches 

The first consequence, was that the student candidate was removed from the application process and banned by this Admissions Testing Board from the testing/review process, thus ending the potential career of this individual in this specific field. The second was that with the help of Capsicum, this Admissions Test Board has started a review of their testing and documentation procedures so that they are able to maintain the integrity of their scores. 

Just in case you were wondering, the student was able to doctor the Adobe PDF without any special software and this is probably the most alarming part. All it took was a combination of formatting and saving to unlock the restricted operations promised by a secured pdf. 

For additional questions regarding this case or any of our offerings please contact us!