Are PDF Credentials Secure?

Jasmine Quigley
January 19, 2021
Estimated read time: 5 minutes
Table of Contents

PDF, meaning portable document format, is a filetype primarily intended for sharing. Designed to preserve document formatting, PDFs are commonly used for distributing official forms and certificates. While convenient, the biggest downside of using PDFs is the lack of trusted security.

How does PDF security work?

The most common method of securing PDFs is to use a password which protects the document using the AES algorithm with Cipher Block Chaining encryption. This is the most basic type of encryption, translating the plain text content into unreadable ‘ciphertext’ requiring a special key - the password - to translate back. This level of encryption is intended for limiting access or restricting features such as modification and printing. However certified or signed PDF documents, commonly used for delivering membership documents and certifications, cannot be encrypted in this way.

How is PDF security flawed?

PDF encryption is insecure - an online search for ‘PDF security’ returns at least 3 results on ‘bypassing PDF security’. Whether dropped into a browser based security remover or opening and renaming a PDF via Mac’s preview application, passwords don’t prevent unauthorised access.

Beyond breaking passwords, even ‘secured’ PDFs can be easily edited by anyone with experience in photoshop or other image editing software. That means PDFs are vulnerable to any graphic design enthusiast, or even a school-aged child with an understanding of basic design editing. This creates additional work for teams that need to monitor for falsified or reproduced documents circling the web.

How can PDF credentials be secured?

PDF security does not meet the expectations that official documents require. To create digital certificates that are protected against unauthorized editing, organizations need to find an alternative solution. A dedicated digital credentialing platform like Accredible can take the stress out of creating secured digital certificates and badges.

A quality digital credentialing platform allows organizations to generate secure, verifiable credentials that can be distributed in PDF format. Enabling candidates to receive a downloadable copy of their PDF that can be printed and hung on the wall. PDF copies are verified using QR codes which provide a scannable link to the live credential including expiry date and issuer details.

Validity is important for credential verification. Take for example annual inspection or recertification certificates that are typically delivered as a printable PDF. These types of certificates are commonly spoofed by simply scanning the original and editing in a more recent date. Not only do verifiable credentials ensure certificates are valid but they make it much harder to create and distribute fake certificates.

Consider the next time you need to ride an elevator or book a qualified technician - is it easy for you to check if safety and inspection documentation is available and valid? A presentable certificate with scannable QR code provides peace of mind within seconds.

PDF Credentials vs Accredible Digital Credentials

Key Takeaways

In summary, PDF credentials may be easy to produce but suffer poor security against preventing unauthorised modification and false reproductions. Additionally, PDF credentials aren’t easily shareable. This restricts several key (and low-cost) marketing channels;

  • Recipients sharing achievements to social media platforms
  • Organic growth of brand presence online

Digital credentials are easy to produce, fully verifiable, and provide an improved experience for recipients. Rather than being lost in a drawer or somewhere on a forgotten hard drive, digital credentials are hosted online and fully accessible across all devices. With a few taps, digital credentials can be shared to social media platforms or uploaded to devices for on-the-job skill verification.

Accredible’s platform simplifies the process of issuing digital credentials for organizations while providing high levels of security against unauthorized modifications and spoofing.

Already issuing credentials via Accredible? Read our help article for how to create and send digital certificates in PDF.

Further Reading

Learn more about replacing PDF certificates with digital credentials using Accredible in our comprehensive Features and Services Guide. This guide details exactly what the Accredible Credential Management System can do to help organizations undergoing digital transformation.

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