Adobe Acrobat: Be very careful with confidential information in PDF files

As CPAs, we often deal with confidential information, and hopefully our IT departments have implemented safeguards to protect against such information getting into the wrong hands. What they cannot protect against, however, is the accidental sharing of information that you thought was hidden.

Glitch leaves Obama info out in open

The news article linked above refers to a “glitch” that allowed a PDF with blacked-out text to be fully readable. A reader of the document simply selected the text, including the blacked-out text, copied it, and pasted it into another program. What is referred to as a “glitch” in the article was probably just an uninformed use of the highlighter tool in Acrobat.

As shown below, the highlighter tool can be used to black out text when the color is changed to black:


The problem is, the text can still be selected, copied, and pasted as if it were never obscured in the first place. Although reprinting the document to PDF leaves the text not-selectable, it will still be faintly visible:


If you need to share a document that contains confidential information:

  1. Determine if the document needs to be shared in the first place.
  2. Don’t rely on Acrobat’s (or any other program for that matter) built-in tools that appear to do the job.
  3. Try printing the document to paper, blacking out text with a marker, and scanning the document back in.
  4. If you are unsure, consult with a tech savvy supervisor or a member of the IT department to determine any potential vulnerability before sending to a third party.

Above all, keep in mind the potential damaging effects of sharing information that should not have been shared, especially by accident.

  1. #1 by Kara Haas on May 13, 2011 - 9:26 am

    Great tip, Tim.
    Thank you for sharing this. I especially love your closing remarks: “Above all, keep in mind the potential damaging effects of sharing information that should not have been shared, especially by accident.” — So often technology and the ability to provide information quickly, makes us lose sight of the big picture and long term effects.

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