A Free Educational Resource Created by Carnegie Mellon University to Empower You to Secure Your Part of Cyberspace

Digital Documents

Handling text, graphical and audio files in electronic format

Creating and handling documents such as word processing files, spreadsheets and presentations is one of the most common tasks that people do with a computer. With a computer and the appropriate software you can create, modify, archive, correct, comment on, review, submit and receive any type of document. There are several formats of documents to choose from, including ".doc" for Microsoft Word, ".pdf" for Adobe Acrobat, the generic ".txt", and the increasingly popular ".xml".

Since the advent of email, you can instantly send a perfect copy of these documents anywhere in the world. However, there are risks that come with this ability, and it is important to be aware of them.

Digital Documents: security threats & prevention tips

  • Data Theft The unauthorized taking or interception of computer-based information
  • Malware Programs that are designed to harm your computer

Digital Documents: common problems and solutions

You share a document with someone who does not have the software to open it.

Don’t send your original document. Instead, create a PDF version of it and distribute that instead. To create a PDF version, you need to use a software called Adobe Acrobat PDF Writer. A free version  of this software is available (Most common document formats, such as Word documents and image formats, are supported).

In order to read your PDF document, recipients need to have a software called Adobe Acrobat Reader, which is also a free download .) An important advantage of this format is that readers do not need the software you used to create the document in order to read it.

There are other advantages to using the PDF format. It ensures that no one modifies the document, and with the use of the digital signature tool in Adobe Acrobat, an author can sign the documents so remains authentic.

You want to limit who can view a PDF.

Add a password to the document, and provide the password to the recipients. For this feature and for more advanced options, you need to use Adobe Acrobat (not Adobe Acrobat Reader), which is available for purchase from Adobe .

Acrobat also offers the following services: restrict printing or changes to a document; create a digital ID and sign a document with it; and certify that you approve a document. Instructions are provided in Adobe Acrobat 6 Quick Reference Sheet to securing a PDF file  (PDF).

Adobe also offers a product called the Adobe Document Center  that allows an author to share documents, while protecting and controlling how they are viewed.

You want to save your files in a safe place other than your computer.

Use the back-up utility in Windows:

  1. Go to Start.
  2. Go to All Programs.
  3. Point to Accessories.
  4. Point to System Tools.
  5. Click on Backup.

Please read more complete instructions from Microsoft .

You want to share and control your documents with confidence.

Don't distribute your important documents insecurely. A product such as Adobe Document Center  offer a web-based solution that helps you protect and control important documents, even after distribution. It integrates with popular software like Adobe Acrobat 8, Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel.

Use of solutions like Adobe Document Center protects your documents from getting into the wrong hands. You can decide who has access to your documents and what they can do with it. You can even audit specifically who has done what to your documents in real time. Adobe Document Center uses verified email addresses to validate access to your documents. Also, it applies persistent protection that stays with the document, regardless of where it goes. This means you can also change any aspect of the protection you apply to the document at any time, even after distribution.

Connect Safely from Different Places


Businesses in particular have taken advantage of digital documentation, relying heavily on technology and digital systems for storing information. Everything from highly critical financial sheets to invoices for customers are now stored electronically.

Because nearly everything that you create at work is stored in a computer, the security risks for your business are tremendous. If a confidential document falls into the hands of the wrong person, your company can be seriously affected. Some of the threats that you face when using digital documents at work include data theft and malware.

Company regulations generally forbid storing material on company computers that could be sexually explicit, violent or otherwise offensive to other users. Also, unless your company allows you to do so, you should not use your computer for creating and storing personal documents.


Handheld computers have come a long way since the Palm Pilot of the mid-1990s. Businessmen now use them to store contacts and check finances, while college students use them to store due dates, surf the Internet, or chat with friends. Today, there are several different brands and models of mobile devices available. These fall into four basic categories: Palm-based PDAs, PocketPC-based PDAs, Blackberries, and cell phones.

Some people consider MP3 players a fifth category. The popular Apple iPod is an electronic device that can store and play back large amounts of music, and because of its large storage capacity, you can also use it to carry documents. Almost all cell phones have the ability to store contact information, and some can store and transmit music files, pictures, and videos. Mobile digital files are everywhere, and it is becoming increasingly more important to keep them secure.

On the road

In public environments, such as airports, hotels and cyber cafes, you must be especially careful with your digital documents. Since anybody can have access to public computers, they could be tampered with or prepared to steal your personal information. When you use your own laptop in public spaces you become part of a public network, leaving you susceptible to attacks from anyone using the same network.

Avoid using public computers to create or modify digital documents with private or sensitive information. These computers can be accessed by anybody, and you might accidentally leave an important document open for the next person to read.

Public Internet connections are usually monitored by third parties or system administrators who are looking for attacks or strange network behavior. Any documents you send on the network could be intercepted by somebody listening to the network traffic. If you must use the Internet in a public place, make sure that the connection is encrypted.

Ethical Issues

Even if a digital document is not protected by copyright and therefore legally available to anybody, it may not be suitable for all users. Certain sexually explicit or violent materials could be offensive or even harmful to other users.

Legal Issues

The most critical legal issue with digital documents is copyright violation. A copyright is a legal protection that keeps published and unpublished literary, scientific and artistic works from being copied without the creator’s permission. For example, an MP3 music file or an ebook on your computer is copyrighted by the artist who created it or the publisher. Anyone who wants to copy this file must first get permission from the owner of the copyright. Therefore, if you intend to make copies of a document or distribute a digital document that you did not create, make sure you are authorized to do so by the copyright owner.

Privacy Issues

Many mobile phones have digital cameras that make it easy to take pictures without being noticed. Beware of camera phones when paying with a credit card or giving your social security card to somebody. The person waiting behind you could be taking a digital picture of your private information.

In December 2004, the U.S. Senate passed the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act of 2004, which makes it a crime to surreptitiously capture images of people in situations where they have an expectation of privacy. Breaking this law can result in fines of up to $100,000 or imprisonment for one year. To respect people's privacy, never take a picture of someone without letting him or her know that you are doing so.

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