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Sterling Team
24-Aug-2021 10:21:35

A PDF is a PDF is a PDF, right?

Wrong. There are around 6,000 ways to create a Portable Document Format file and although the results might look identical, they are not necessarily the same. For virtual data room users, this matters.

Documents from any application can be converted to PDFs so that they can be read and shared but can no longer be modified. This makes PDF an ideal file format for documents to be uploaded to a virtual data room (VDR).

So far, so good. But when it comes to redaction – a vital feature of today’s VDRs – PDFs created in different ways will behave differently. In particular, this will mean that some PDFs cannot be redacted using the software tools now built into VDRs. As a result, a user who searches for a term that they want to redact from a set of documents will be able to do so in 'genuine' PDFs that have been created in the right way, but the system will fail to pick up instances of the search term that appear in PDFs that have been created using other methods.

So the risk is that VDR users will be misled into thinking that every appearance of the term has been redacted when in reality it has not. Or they try to redact a PDF and find the terms they want to remove are still visible.

What’s going on here?
The problem arises because, as we said at the start, not all PDFs are the same. Specifically, not all PDFs are created with the all the information contained in the original document – such as the fonts – 'embedded' in the file. PDFs created this way can be redacted using tools such as Sterling’s redaction software. However, many documents that are saved in the PDF format do not have the original document information embedded in them: scans created using a printer and saved as PDFs, for example, have no embedded data. This means they cannot be read by the redaction software and any sensitive terms that appear in them will be missed.

Redaction tools are a relatively new addition to VDRs but they bring big advantages. Users can search and redact large bodies of documents quickly and accurately. They can see thumbnails of the pages to rapidly review their changes. They can save draft changes midway through the process and return later or pass them to a colleague for checking and approval.

But unlike other VDRs, Sterling Technology’s software automatically detects whether PDFs have been created with the required information embedded so that they can be redacted. If the documents do not have embedded information, our redaction tool will flag them. Users can then send these PDFs to the Sterling support team, who will convert them into the correct format to enable them to be redacted.

That gives our users three lines of defence: a fast, user-friendly redaction tool, a warning system that flags PDFs that haven’t been created properly, and a support team that will sort the problem out – and can even take on the job of redacting documents for you.

Which means that – in our VDRs at least – a PDF is a PDF is a PDF.