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Bell cure of PDF complexity.

A new stressful PDF corpus

Interoperability is the core value proposition of the PDF file format. Although interoperability comes from sharing a clear and precise understanding of the file format specification, test data in the form of a corpus of PDF files is critical to ensuring reliable and robust implementations especially in the more complex areas of the specification.  Larger and established organizations that have spent years developing PDF technologies typically maintain their own private corpus of confidential PD … Read more
About the author: Peter Wyatt is the PDF Association’s CTO and an independent technology consultant with deep file format and parsing expertise. A developer and researcher working on PDF technologies for more than … Read more
Peter Wyatt

Peter Wyatt
September 10, 2020


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Interoperability is the core value proposition of the PDF file format. Although interoperability comes from sharing a clear and precise understanding of the file format specification, test data in the form of a corpus of PDF files is critical to ensuring reliable and robust implementations especially in the more complex areas of the specification. 

Larger and established organizations that have spent years developing PDF technologies typically maintain their own private corpus of confidential PDF files collated over the years from their user base and market experience. We have also all seen bug reports in open-source developments where triggering data cannot be shared due to customer confidentiality or privacy concerns, leaving developers struggling to reproduce and resolve reported issues.

Corpora use cases  

The uses to which corpora are put are so varied that it’s impossible to say which is the “best”. Let’s review a few cases:

  • Sometimes people are referring to document contents rather than the PDF syntactic elements or idioms (COS syntax) that are used to construct a PDF file. For example collections of books, maps, documents with mathematical content, posters. Asian-language content (often referred to as CJK “Chinese/Japanese/Korean” but Asian languages are broader than just those 3), Arabic, Hebrew or other content read right-to-left, etc. are all mostly related to document content rather than PDF syntax;
  • Sometimes people ask for a corpus that is representative of “all PDF files” where “all” may have an unstated meaning (such as within an industry vertical) or exclude certain features (“no large files”, “RGB only” or “no multimedia or 3D content”);
  • Sometimes people are after specific targeted low-level PDF technical constructs described in the PDF specification - or - much harder - a specific combination of multiple low-level PDF technical features and constructs;
  • Sometimes people are after PDF files to help inform a product or design decision (such as the “maximum” number of pages, bookmarks, annotations, optional content layers, number of spot colors, number or depth of nested stitching functions, etc. where the PDF specification is open-ended);
  • Sometimes a “diverse” corpus is desired for increasing code coverage or as the initial seeds for a fuzzing initiative;
  • Sometimes people are after a set of PDF files for a specific technical or research goal, whether that be document layout analysis, text extraction, table recognition, OCR/ICR, etc.
  • ...and the most common request: “stressful corpora” where a PDF processor’s reliability and robustness against unexpected input can be tested against unusual files.

In the interconnected digital world it is critically important that all PDF processors are reliable and robust against all forms of unexpected inputs. Whether the input is technically valid PDF according to some past (or future!) version of the PDF specification, whether it is accidentally malformed through data corruption or undesirable pre-processing, or whether it is intentionally and maliciously malformed, stressful PDF files can be of great assistance to all PDF developers in improving their technologies.

Although fuzzing techniques and tools have advanced rapidly in recent years, very large computing resources, specialized expertise to create grammar-aware fuzzing, deep expertise in the PDF file format, and a lot of time and patience are all required to get good results (and good ROI) from a fuzzing initiative. So can there be a better way?

How do you find “stressful PDF”? 

To answer this question, we should first back up and examine what makes non-stressful PDF files. Although not a technical definition, many developers consider non-stressful PDF as commonplace files using typical lexical and syntactic constructs, with idioms that don’t take any parser by surprise.

Many expect that a random internet search for PDF files will find all the “typical” files they need.  

Is it correct to assume that internet searching returns a ‘normal distribution’ (bell curve) of PDF files with varying internal file complexity ranging from the trivially simple to the extremely stressful? Based on sheer volume alone, at some level the answer might be “yes”, but this assumption is also derived from a number of other more basic assumptions that can be partially examined in more detail:

  1. Not all internet crawlers understand what constitutes a “PDF file” the same way;
  2. Not all PDF files are equally accessible to internet crawlers for indexing;
  3. Impacts from the technologies used for PDF processing within the search engines as well as filtering and sorting of results (data reduction).

Bell cure of PDF complexity.

What’s wrong with arbitrary PDF files from the internet?

In the same way that data scientists working in Machine Learning and AI concern themselves with bias in their data, and its impact on their algorithms, those collecting files for corpora need to be aware of accidental bias that may be introduced through their collection methods and tooling. 

First, one must acknowledge that files found on the internet don’t represent all files that exist; far from it. Many factors, including pay-walls, database- and script-generated PDF files, access restrictions, and various other technical and legal impediments limit what search engines can access and index. Clearly, no one opens up their entire personal or business cloud-based services and file shares to internet search engines so, not unexpectedly, entire classes of PDF documents will also be under-represented in search engine results, including bank statements, health records, financial and tax records, various legal documents, proprietary engineering and manufacturing specifications, very large files, files containing executable content, malicious files, etc. When combined with stale and broken links, using a search engine to locate and download sufficient random PDF files to create that bell curve and that results in a reasonably sized corpus of “stressful PDF” at the very tail of the bell curve is possible, but highly inefficient and costly. Such data is also unstructured and unlabeled so knowing which file falls at which position along the X-axis is even more work.

For those willing to accept those limitations, there is an efficient way to access large amounts of data from the web via publicly available datasets gathered by Common Crawl. Common Crawl’s mission is to “...maintain an open repository of web crawl data that can be accessed and analyzed by anyone.” (see http://commoncrawl.org/). It is the database that lies behind the Wayback Machine (https://web.archive.org/) containing petabytes of data collected since 2008. Common Crawl includes crawl metadata, raw web page data, extracted metadata, text extractions, and, of course, millions and millions of PDF files. Its datasets are huge; the indices are themselves impressively large – the compressed index for the December 2019 crawl alone requires 300 GB. So can Common Crawl’s data be considered as a pre-packaged internet search, ready for use?

"Building a Wide Reach Corpus for Secure Parser Development" by Allison et. al. (http://spw20.langsec.org/papers.html) is a recent research report from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) developed under the SafeDocs program. The authors investigated PDF files in the public Common Crawl corpus, and identified a number of concerns:

  1. Common Crawl truncates files at 1 MB. If users require intact files, they must re-pull truncated files from the original websites using the cached URL. In the December 2019 crawl, nearly 430,000 PDFs (22%!) were truncated. 
  2. Determining file types from the web can be problematic. As earlier crawls did not include the results of automatic file type detection, some process must be used to determine the type of a file: (a) run automatic file type detection on every file (noting also that some files are truncated and will need to be re-crawled); (b) rely on the HTTP content-type header information saved in the crawl; or (c) rely on the file extension in the crawl as represented in the URL. Or, potentially, all three.
  3. Not only does Common Crawl not fully capture a website, but different search engines provide very different results as the JPL report clearly showed. Of course, the ‘ground truth’ can only be known by site administrators:
Search Engine Condition Number of Files
Google site:jpl.nasa.gov 1.2 million
Bing site:jpl.nasa.gov 1.8 million
Common Crawl *.jpl.nasa.gov 128,406
Google site:jpl.nasa.gov filetype:pdf 50,700
Bing site:jpl.nasa.gov filetype:pdf 64,300
Common Crawl *.jpl.nasa.gov filetype:pdf 7


These key findings highlight that although Common Crawl and internet search engines can be extremely useful for quickly and easily gathering very large quantities of files, they cannot be relied upon for a complete crawl of the web nor of specific sites. This implies that a corpus developed solely via such means may not be fully representative of file diversity. Much like the data scientists and ML/AI, appreciating these issues (biases) helps us appreciate how Common Crawl data and internet searches can be included in test corpora while also acknowledging the limitations. 

A new “Issue Tracker” corpus of stressful PDF

If a “stressful PDF” can be considered as any file that causes problems for a parser, then looking into the problems faced by diverse parsers can be a great learning experience.  

As part of the same SafeDocs research, the NASA JPL team extended their crawling technology to be able to ‘deep crawl’ into a number of publicly accessible common issue tracker (bug) databases (such as Bugzilla, JIRA, and GitHub) to extract file attachments associated with each bug report. A number of well-known open-source PDF processors with publicly accessible bug databases were then ‘deep crawled’ to create a new corpus. Issue tracker file attachments are not visible to search engines as they hide within bug databases, and thus this new corpus creates an extension to the type of data found in Common Crawl or returned by internet search engines. Issue trackers also conveniently capture a time log of bug reports, creating a ‘temporal database’ in much the same way as the time-based Common Crawl datasets.

Any data associated with a bug report is, by its very nature, going to be biased, but this time in a good way for “stressful PDFs”! Bug report file attachments tend to be unusual, or at least the cause of something unexpected for the original developer at the time of the bug report.  By maintaining a link back to each specific bug report (i.e. the Bug ID) others can examine the originally reported issue, any technical discussions, linked or subsequent issues, and even resulting code changes. This can help accelerate resolution of new issues in other PDF processors when triggered with the same data, or with annotating and labeling data for machine learning data sets.

Initial use of this new “Issue Tracker” PDF corpus within the SafeDocs research program and by the Apache Tika team for regression testing has indicated a much higher “bug yield” than other conventionally-sourced and much larger corpora from internet search engines. This improved ROI is easy to use (reasonably sized), and does not require any specialized knowledge besides a basic understanding of the PDF file format. 

This new “Issue Tracker” PDF corpus is now publicly available and can be found at https://corpora.tika.apache.org/base/docs/bug_trackers and at https://corpora.tika.apache.org/base/packaged/pdfs/ with individual ZIP files for each currently available application to simplify downloading. The corpus is currently about 16 GB with over 20,000 PDF files from some well-known open-source PDF processors including Apache PDFBox, Apache Tika, Chromium pdfium, and GhostScript. Each file in the corpus is named with a Bug ID and associated with an open-source parser to allow full traceability.

Issue Tracker No. of PDFs Size ZIP Size
GhostScript 5,279 5.3 GB 3.8 GB
Libre Office 5,183 1.3 GB 1.0 GB
Mozilla pdf.js 2,400 4.9 GB 4.1 GB
OCR-my-PDF 187 437 MB 384 MB
Apache Open Office 3,109 688 MB 539 MB
Open PDF 31 3.2 MB 2.5 MB
Apache PDFBOX 3,577 2.6 GB 1.7 GB
Chromium pdfium 379 212 MB 167 MB
POI 10 908 KB 684 KB
qpdf 68 33 MB 23 MB
Sumatra PDF 213 487 MB 372 MB
Apache TIKA 140 140 MB 126 MB
TOTAL 20,576 16 GB 13 GB

We hope to extend this corpus in the future with data from more PDF technologies as well as with new capabilities to ‘deep crawl’ other issue tracker tools. I encourage all PDF developers to try this new “Issue Tracker” PDF corpus against their own technologies and to report their experiences, with a focus on improving reliability and robustness against unexpected input. For more information and to stay up-to-date with the “Issue Tracker” PDF corpus, please join the corpora-dev@tika.apache.org email list (via https://tika.apache.org/mail-lists.html) and, for PDF Association members, please provide your feedback or comments in the PDF TWG.

A new GitHub repository has also been established at https://github.com/pdf-association/pdf-corpora to provide an index of PDF-centric corpora that may be of interest to the wider PDF developer community. This includes a broader scope and size of corpora, ranging from those focused on PDF ISO subsets (such as PDF/X and PDF/A) as well as more content-centric corpora (such as those used for table recognition hackathons). If you are aware of other corpora, or would like to offer your corpora to the wider PDF industry, please create a new Issue or pull request in GitHub.

To hear more about this new “Issue Tracker” PDF corpus and other SafeDocs contributions to industry, please register for my OctoberPDFest SafeDocs update webinar!

The PDF Association wishes to thank the NASA JPL and Apache Tika teams, and particularly Dr. Tim Allison, for their efforts in creating the technology and collating the data. We also wish to thank Maruan Sahyoun of PDF Association member FileAffairs GmbH, part of the Apache PDFBox team, for hosting the “Issue Tracker” PDF corpus as a valuable new industry resource. 


This material is based upon work supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under Contract No. HR001119C0079. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Approved for public release.

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