How to break PDF Signatures


If you open a PDF document and your viewer displays a panel (like you see below) indicating that

  1. the document is signed by [email protected] and
  2. the document has not been modified since the signature was applied You assume that the displayed content is precisely what [email protected] has created.

During recent research, we found out that this is not the case for almost all PDF Desktop Viewers and most Online Validation Services.

So what is the problem?

With our attacks, we can use an existing signed document (e.g., amazon.de invoice) and change the content of the document arbitrarily without invalidating the signatures. Thus, we can forge a document signed by [email protected] to refund us one trillion dollars.

To detect the attack, you would need to be able to read and understand the PDF format in depth. Most people are probably not capable of such thing (PDF file example).

To recap this, you can use any signed PDF document and create a document which contains arbitrary content in the name of the signing user, company, ministry or state.


Forged Amazon Refund

Important: To verify the signature you need to trust the amazon.de certificate, which you would if you get signed PDFs from Amazon, otherwise the signature is still valid, but the certificate is not trusted. Furthermore, due to our responsible disclosure process, most applications already implemented countermeasure against our attack, you can find a vulnerable Adobe Acrobat DC Reader version here.

Who uses PDF Signatures?

Since 2014, organizations delivering public digital services in an EU member state are required to support digitally signed documents such as PDF files by law (eIDAS).

In Austria, every governmental authority digitally signs any document §19. Also, any new law is legally valid after its announcement within a digitally signed PDF. Several countries like Brazil, Canada, the Russian Federation, and Japan also use and accept digitally signed documents.

The US government protects PDF files with PDF signatures, and individuals can report tax withholdings by signing and submitting a PDF.

Outside Europe, Forbes calls the electronic signature and digital transactions company DocuSign as No. 4 in its Cloud 100 list. Many companies sign every document they deliver (e.g., Amazon, Decathlon, Sixt). Standardization documents, such as ISO and DIN, are also protecting by PDF signatures. Even in the academic world, PDF signatures are sometimes used to sign scientific papers (e.g., ESORICS proceedings).

According to Adobe Sign, the company processed 8 billion electronic and digital signatures in 2017 alone.

Currently, we are not aware of any exploits using our attacks.

How bad is it?

We evaluated our attacks against two types of applications. The commonly known desktop applications everyone uses on a daily bases and online validation services. The last one is often used in the business world to validate the signature of a PDF document returning a validation report as a result.

During our research, we identified 21 out of 22 desktop viewer applications and 5 out of 7 online validation services vulnerable against at least one of our attacks.

You can find the detailed results of our evaluation on the following web pages:

  1. Desktop Viewer Applications
  2. Online Validation Services

How can I protect myself?

As part of our research, we started a responsible disclosure procedure on 9th October 2018, after we identified 21 out 22 desktop viewer applications and 5 out of 7 online validation services vulnerable against at least one of our attacks.

In cooperation with the BSI-CERT, we contacted all vendors, provided proof-of-concept exploits, and helped them to fix the issues.

You can take a look at which PDF Reader you are using and compare the versions. If you use one of our analyzed Desktop Viewer Applications you already should have got an update for you Reader.

My PDF Reader is not listed

If you use another Reader, you should contact the support team for your application.

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