Securing Your PDF Files (Free Book Excerpt from “Adobe Acrobat in One Hour for Lawyers”)

Excerpted and adapted from Adobe Acrobat in One Hour for Lawyers by Ernie Svenson, published by the ABA Law Practice Division.

PDF files are potentially more secure than paper documents, at least if you apply security to them. PDF security isn’t infallible, but it’s important for lawyers to know how to enable it, and to know what it can and can’t do.

1. Two Types of Security

Acrobat allows you to lock down PDF files in two ways: (1) to prevent a user from opening a PDF without a “document open password,” and (2) to restrict what can be done to a PDF once opened, unless the user enters a “document permissions password.”

Why would you want to restrict PDFs in these ways? The answer no doubt varies from lawyer to lawyer, but here are some common scenarios.

Let’s say you want to send a confidential document to a client by e-mail, but you’re wary that a spouse or secretary might have access to the client’s e-mail program. You should enable security that prevents the PDF from being opened without a password; then call your client and tell him or her the password (and perhaps keep that password for any future PDFs you need to send to that client).

If you’re producing documents in PDF form to opposing counsel, you might want to restrict their ability to insert or remove pages. If the PDFs are text searchable, you might want to inhibit the ability to select and copy text (although doing so would likely create problems under F.R.C.P. 34(b)(E)(ii), which requires that documents be produced in a “reasonably usable form”). If a protective order specifies that the documents are not to be printed out, you could properly restrict printing.


2.  Setting Security

So, how do you enable security to accomplish such goals? From the File menu, choose Document Properties (or use the shortcut CMD/CTRL + D) and click on the Security tab. From there, choose the Security Method drop-down menu. Choose Password Security from the drop-down.

From the next dialog box, you can (1) enter a password that will be needed to open the PDF, (2) enter a password that will be needed to make changes to the PDF, and (3) specify the changes that are allowed or disallowed.

You have options to prohibit printing (or limit printing quality) and restrict changes (e.g., inserting or deleting pages, content copying, and commenting). You can also set a password to restrict modifications to a PDF without setting a password for opening it.


3. PDF Security Isn’t Perfect

After you apply security, Adobe will warn you that, while all of its products will enforce security settings, some third-party products might not, enabling recipients of your secured PDF to bypass some of the restrictions you set. In other words, Acrobat’s security is pretty good, but far from perfect. Still, it’s better than nothing, and therefore useful.


4. Save Security Settings for Reuse

If you find that you benefit from using the security settings, you might start using them a lot. And you might notice that you’re using a certain set of security restrictions over and over. The good news is that you can create a saved policy that you can quickly apply to future PDFs.

To do this, go to the Tools menu and select Protection > Encrypt > Manage Security Policies. Then, choose New > Use Passwords and give the policy a name (and description, if you like). From there, you’ll see a dialog box exactly like the one in Figure 18.4, and you can define the security settings you want to save for future use.

When you want to apply the saved security settings, open the Tools menu and select Protection > Encrypt. Choose the policy you created and apply it to the open document.

The last important thing to mention about security is that you should regularly update Acrobat (and Reader, if you use that too). Adobe is always pushing out important security patches, and you want to have those as soon as they are available. To check for updates go to Help > Check for Updates.


For more Adobe Acrobat tips, order your copy of Adobe Acrobat in One Hour for Lawyers by Ernie Svenson today!

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