Adobe, GeoTrust join forces to certify PDF documents

October 06, 2004


CBS News and anchorman Dan Rather recently found themselves at the center of a political firestorm resulting from reporting -- allegations about the questionable military service of Pres. George W. Bush -- that turned out to be based on documents that, if not outright forgeries, were at the very least from an unverifiable source.

When the validity and integrity of the source documents were called into question by several knowledgeable Weblog authors, and CBS subsequently could not prove definitively that the PDF-based files it cited and offered for downloading were authentic -- they had apparently not received or been able to track down originals -- both the TV network and the veteran journalist were forced to recant the story and to apologize.

A new document certification solution unveiled this week by Adobe Systems and GeoTrust, Inc. ( might have spared the news organization a lot of embarrassment had it been available and in use with the questioned military record files.

The "Adobe Acrobat Certified Document Services" solution from GeoTrust involves the use (purchase) of an electronic identity that can be used with Acrobat 6 on the desktop or with Adobe's LiveCycle Document Security offering on a server to digitally sign PDF documents so that a recipient -- using either Acrobat 6 or the free Adobe Reader 6 -- can see "who the document came from and that not a pixel has been changed," according to Adobe's John Landwehr, Group Manager, Security Solutions and Strategy. Authors can purchase a True Credentials digital signing device from GeoTrust, which handles ID verification and device licensing for about $895 per year for an individual account.

In the case of the flawed CBS documents, several bloggers cited information found in the 'Document Properties' field of the PDFs -- which eventually were available for download from numerous Web sites -- as proof of the origin of the files. However, when we examined the same PDF-based records available from the CBS News and Fox News sites, we discovered that the "Document Properties" information was different in each. There was no way to determine who had actually created the files -- in both cases, they were scanned into PDF -- and/or what had been done to them by whom.

The Adobe Acrobat Certified Document Services from GeoTrust can also be combined with a scanning solution. According to Landwehr, "If you scan a document into PDF, you can certify it and then know that nothing has changed in that document. As more and more content is syndicated, the tougher it becomes to identify the source," he says. "With GeoTrust, the certification sticks with the document."

Another key application of the technology is expected to be to combat 'pfishing,' says Landwehr. "Banks can now digitally sign the documents that go out -- for the recipient it doesn't matter which OS or email client they have, they can verify that the documents really came from the bank. And if it's a form that the recipient is being asked to fill out, the recipient now has added assurances that the form really did originate from the bank; and when they submit it back, that it's really going back to the bank and not being redirected somewhere else."

GeoTrust is offering several examples of Certified Documents for downloading:

When a certified PDF is opened -- with either Acrobat 6 or Reader 6 -- a special window opens identifying the document's status, noting that it has been certified as valid with a digital signature and whether it has been modified since certified.

document status

"Digital signatures have been around for awhile, but have been limited primarily to the intranet," says Landwehr. "This is the first time that documents can be digitally signed and widely distributed, not only inside, but also outside an organization."

Even to and from a news organization.

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