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Quirks of PDF public-key encryption

A commentary on the interoperability of encrypting PDF documents with public-key cryptography.
About the author: Independent PDF expert and FOSS developer, co-representing the Belgian standards body NBN in ISO/TC 171/SC 2. I’m the current project leader for ISO/TS 32004. I was employed as a Research … Read more
Matthias Valvekens

Matthias Valvekens
December 21, 2022


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A commentary on the interoperability of encrypting PDF documents with public-key cryptography.

PDF encryption in general

In the PDF context, public-key cryptography is most commonly associated with digital signatures. This article is about another, lesser-known application of PKI in PDF: using PKI to encrypt PDF files. The idea is that this allows you to encrypt a PDF file with key material from one or more X.509 certificates so that only the designated recipients can decrypt the document using their respective private keys.

This is different from password-based encryption, which relies on a shared secret (i.e. the password) between the encrypting and decrypting passwords. It's also much less widely implemented — this is probably at least partly due to the fact that the specification isn't particularly clear on the details.

Of course, PDF encryption has lots of well-documented, more fundamental issues (see e.g. MIMMSS19) and while I've spoken about those in the past, that's not what this post is about. I'm going to assume that you have a reason to implement PDF's public key security handler and that you only want to know how to do so in an interoperable manner.

The specification

First things first: other than the adoption/deprecation of certain algorithms and crypt filters (which applies to PDF encryption in general), in addition to some terminological tweaks, there were no substantial changes to the public-key security handler between ISO 32000-1:2008 (PDF 1.7) and ISO 32000-2:2020 (PDF 2.0). The normative text is in clause of ISO 32000-1:2008 (PDF 1.7), or equivalently, clause of ISO 32000-2:2020 (PDF 2.0).

The rough idea of the specified encryption scheme is the following.

  1. The encrypting party generates a 20-byte seed. This seed is used to derive the actual file encryption key; see below. Together with some other information, it is embedded into an envelope.
  2. The encrypting party chooses a suitable (symmetric!) envelope encryption algorithm 1, and generates an envelope key 2 (length depending on the algorithm choice)
  3. After encrypting the envelope with the algorithm and key from the previous step, the envelope key is encrypted with the public key of each recipient.
  4. In the encrypted envelope, all the encrypted copies of the envelope keys and recipient certificates are embedded into the PDF file.

The standard also tells us that we should use CMS 3 (see RFC 5652) to encode this information. Let's try to unpack what all of that means.


Which CMS structures?

The standard doesn't literally spell out which kind of CMS object it requires to store the keying material, but from context and phrases like "decrypt the enveloped data in the CMS object", it's pretty clear that the intended content type is EnvelopedData. In RFC 5652 § 6.1, EnvelopedData is defined like this:

EnvelopedData ::= SEQUENCE {
    version CMSVersion,
    originatorInfo [0] IMPLICIT OriginatorInfo OPTIONAL,
    recipientInfos RecipientInfos,
    encryptedContentInfo EncryptedContentInfo,
    unprotectedAttrs [1] IMPLICIT UnprotectedAttributes OPTIONAL }

This structure is wrapped into a CMS ContentInfo with the OID specified in RFC 5652 § 6.1, as usual. Now, what do all of these fields mean? Let's go through them, starting with the untagged ones.

You'll note that RFC 5652 specifies a procedure to deduce the appropriate value of the version field. In our case, the answer is simple: the version number is virtually always 0 in practice, since all higher-version features are essentially off-limits, for reasons that should become clear soon. The next untagged field is recipientInfos, which — as the name implies — will hold per-recipient key material for the intended recipients of the document. Its value type is a set of RecipientInfo objects, viz.

RecipientInfo ::= SET OF RecipientInfo

RecipientInfo ::= CHOICE {
    ktri KeyTransRecipientInfo,
    kari [1] KeyAgreeRecipientInfo,
    kekri [2] KEKRecipientInfo,
    pwri [3] PasswordRecipientinfo,
    ori [4] OtherRecipientInfo }

Hmmm, a sum type. That means that we have to figure out which of the recipient info types is the proper one — and it's not listed in the standard! We'll get to that.

The next field is EncryptedContentInfo. This is the proverbial "digital envelope" we encountered in the overview. Here's the type definition:

EncryptedContentInfo ::= SEQUENCE {
    contentType ContentType,
    contentEncryptionAlgorithm ContentEncryptionAlgorithmIdentifier,
    encryptedContent [0] IMPLICIT EncryptedContent OPTIONAL }

EncryptedContent ::= OCTET STRING

ContentEncryptionAlgorithmIdentifier ::= AlgorithmIdentifier

This data structure identifies the type of content that was encrypted, together with the associated (symmetric) envelope encryption algorithm. The actual encrypted envelope is stored in the encryptedContent field 4.

Let's discuss how all of these structures play together in a bottom-up way, starting with the envelope.

Constructing the envelope

The plain-text content of the encrypted envelope is straightforwardly specified in ISO 32000-1:2008 (PDF 1.7) and ISO 32000-2:2020 (PDF 2.0). The content type is id-data, and the contents are

  • 20 bytes of key derivation seed, and
  • 4 bytes of permission bits 5

I won't go into detail on what these permission bits mean, the standard does a decent job of explaining that. We'll focus on how to process this data.

ISO 32000-2 contains a list of algorithms that can be used to encrypt the envelope. The most modern choice in the list is 256-bit AES-CBC. In practice, that means that you should apply the padding scheme in RFC 5652 § 6.3 to pad the payload to a multiple of 16 bytes, and then apply 256-bit AES-CBC with a 32-byte envelope key generated using a strong random number generator. All of that should be available in your favourite cryptography library.

The relevant algorithm OID for 256-bit AES-CBC is 2.16.840., as listed in CSOR.

The encrypted envelope content goes into the encryptedContent field, wrapped up in an OCTET STRING value.


There's one notable difference in AES-CBC usage compared to string & stream encryption in PDF.
In CMS, the initialisation vector (IV) for CBC is not stored as part of the encrypted content!

Instead, the IV must be supplied as an OCTET STRING in the parameters field of the ContentEncryptionAlgorithmIdentifier.

While all other symmetric algorithm choices that were listed in ISO 32000-1:2008 (PDF 1.7) are deprecated in ISO 32000-2:2020 (PDF 2.0), many are still used in the wild. Depending on your use case, you might still need to process them.

Encrypting the envelope key

The construction of the envelope is pretty well-specified, but when we get to encrypting the envelope key for each recipient, things become murky: which encryption schemes are actually supported?

Which RecipientInfo to choose?

The first issue we face is figuring out which RecipientInfo types can be used, since ISO 32000-2:2020 (PDF 2.0) is silent on that point. Here, a brief foray into the history of the relevant standards can provide some insight. The quickest way in is perhaps to look at how PKCS #7 defines EnvelopedData:

EnvelopedData ::= SEQUENCE {
    version Version,
    recipientInfos RecipientInfos,
    encryptedContentInfo EncryptedContentInfo }

RecipientInfos ::= SET OF RecipientInfo

RecipientInfo ::= SEQUENCE {
    version Version,
    issuerAndSerialNumber IssuerAndSerialNumber,
    keyEncryptionAlgorithm KeyEncryptionAlgorithmIdentifier,
    encryptedKey EncryptedKey }

At first sight, that looks pretty weird: in CMS, RecipientInfo is a choice type, while PKCS #7 defines it in a way that looks suspiciously like KeyTransRecipientInfo in RFC 5652 § 6.2.1!

KeyTransRecipientInfo ::= SEQUENCE {
    version CMSVersion,
    rid RecipientIdentifier,
    keyEncryptionAlgorithm KeyEncryptionAlgorithmIdentifier,
    encryptedKey EncryptedKey }

This is the magic of backwards/forwards-compatible ASN.1 tagging at work: since the ktri choice in the RFC 5652 version of RecipientInfo is untagged, legacy PKCS #7 RecipientInfo values will be automagically interpreted as KeyTransRecipientInfo by a compliant CMS reader. The converse is true as well: CMS encoders can produce messages that legacy PKCS #7 processors can still read, provided that they don't use any of the new features in RFC 5652. By the way, the distinction between RecipientIdentifier and IssuerAndSerialNumber is exactly the same as for signer identifiers in SignedData, which we discussed in another article.

In hindsight, the fact that ISO 32000-2:2020 (PDF 2.0) does not unambiguously state which recipient info types can be used in PDF may be a simple editorial oversight. In PKCS #7 there's no choice, but that nuance probably got lost in the editing process when the references to PKCS #7 were updated to RFC 5652.

On key transport

So, from history and context, it looks like the intention of the PDF standard is that KeyTransportRecipientInfo be used when encrypting documents with the public-key security handler. Let's back up a little to explain what that means, and what the ramifications are.

Suppose that Alice wants to send a confidential message to Bob, and that she knows Bob's public key. The simplest method by which she could try to accomplish that would be to somehow directly encrypt the entire message with Bob's public key, but that's a terrible idea, and not how you're supposed to use asymmetric crypto. The next simplest thing she could do would be to encrypt the message using an appropriate symmetric cipher with a random key, encrypt the generated key with Bob's public key, and send the entire package (encrypted message + encrypted key) to Bob.

This is, in a nutshell, the kind of key transport scheme that KeyTransportRecipientInfo represents. It's inherently non-interactive and asymmetric: Alice can do the message key generation process all by herself, Bob does not contribute. Moreover, Alice doesn't even need to generate a public/private key pair of her own for this to work. From an implementation simplicity point of view, this makes it a convenient choice for "traditionally one-directional" encryption use cases, such as encryption of file backups.

However, this simplicity is superficial: for one, by virtue of its non-interactivity, simple key transport (along with naive key agreement schemes) cannot achieve any kind of forward secrecy. Moreover, the scheme does not authenticate Alice's message to Bob in any way, which is also problematic in most use cases where encryption is at all relevant. So Alice would have to sign her message in addition to encrypting it, and at that point, the advantages provided by this sort of scheme become rather small.

There are other kinds of key agreement schemes (such as Diffie-Hellman, or its ECC-based variants) where information from key pairs of both parties are used in the derivation of the shared secret key. These still work largely non-interactively, but the keying material for those can't be encoded in a KeyTransportRecipientInfo value 6. They also still require out-of-band authentication for public keys (e.g. via X.509 certificates). Either way, these schemes aren't currently explicitly supported in the PDF standard 7.

Moreover, even if they were supported, they still wouldn't solve the forward secrecy problem. To achieve perfect forward secrecy, both parties need to actively contribute to the shared key generation process. This is very natural for parties sending messages over an active communication channel (e.g. TLS), but there's no real precedent for that sort of thing in PDF.

The actual public-key encryption process

As it turns out, the only widely used public-key cryptosystem that can be used with KeyTransportRecipientInfo is RSA. All the other mainstream options effectively require KeyAgreeRecipientInfo, which is off the table in "old-school" PKCS #7.

That leaves the padding scheme question: can you use RSAES-OAEP in an encrypted PDF, or are you effectively forced to use legacy PKCS#1 v1.5 padding?

Unfortunately — assuming you need to interoperate with other implementations — it's the latter: the specification is completely silent on this issue, but if you need your PDFs to be readable by off-the-shelf tools, PKCS#1 v1.5 is effectively the only thing that's supported in the wild (despite RSAES-OAEP having been around for over two decades!).


If you're encrypting files using public-key cryptography, and interoperability with "generic" PDF processors is a requirement — i.e. you need to cater to the lowest common denominator of all PDF tools that support the "standard" public-key security handler — then here's what you need to do:

  • Stick to features that were available in PKCS #7: KeyTransportRecipientInfo for your RecipientInfo objects, and IssuerAndSerialNumber for the recipient identifiers.
  • You'll have to use RSA 8 with the legacy PKCS#1 v1.5 padding scheme to encrypt your envelope keys.
  • Encrypt the envelope itself with 256-bit AES in CBC mode — it's the least bad option among the ones available in the specification.

If your interoperability requirements aren't as strict, you might be able to substitute at least a couple of those for more modern/robust options. But then again, if interoperability is not a concern, PDF's "native" encryption provides little to no added value.

Key derivation

The procedure by which the file encryption key is derived from the 20-byte seed value is largely well-defined in the standard, but there are some sharp edges. These are relevant in case you need to be able to decrypt documents encrypted with legacy versions of the standard public-key security handler (adbe.pkcs7.s3 and adbe.pkcs7.s4), or if you're applying public-key encryption to non-default crypt filters (e.g. for embedded files). See this PDF Association GitHub errata issue for some useful background information.

Conclusion (TL;DR)

If you really, really have to support asymmetric cryptography using the public-key security handler in the PDF standard, you're effectively constrained to using RSA with PKCS#1 v1.5 padding to encrypt your envelope keys, and to the subset of CMS (RFC 5652) that was already available in PKCS #7.


NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF STANDARDS AND TECHNOLOGY (NIST). Computer Security Objects Register (CSOR) [online]. [Accessed 9 October 2021]. Available from: https://csrc.nist.gov/projects/computer-security-objects-register.

J. MÜLLER, F. ISING, V. MLADENOV, C. MAINKA, S. SCHINZEL and J. SCHWENK. Practical Decryption ExFiltration: Breaking PDF Encryption. In: LORENZO CAVALLARO, JOHANNES KINDER, XIAOFENG WANG and JONATHAN KATZ (eds.), Proceedings of the 2019 ACM SIGSAC Conference on Computer and Communications Security (CCS ’19). New York, NY, USA : Association for Computing Machinery, 2019. p. 15–29. ISBN 9781450367479.

RFC 5652 Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), RFC 5652: Cryptographic Message Syntax (CMS), 2009.

PKCS #7 Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), RFC 2315 PKCS #7: Cryptographic Message Syntax, Version 1.5, 1998.


1: The full list of available choices is in the specification, but in ISO 32000-2:2020 (PDF 2.0), the only non-deprecated option is 256-bit AES-CBC.

2: In RFC 5652, the envelope key is called a "content encryption key", but since it's not actually used to encrypt any document content in PDF, I'll continue to call it an envelope key.

3: ISO 32000-1:2008 (PDF 1.7) still uses the legacy term PKCS #7 instead of "CMS". They're largely interchangeable for the purposes of this discussion, but understanding the relationship between the two is key to resolving some of the ambiguities in the current text.

4: The encryptedContent field is marked as optional, but in the current context, it's always present.

5: There's one exception: the permission bits are absent when you're constructing an envelope to be used in a non-default crypt filter, but chances are that you don't need to worry about that.

6: Instead, you'd use KeyAgreeRecipientInfo (see RFC 5652 § 6.2.2).

7: Interestingly enough, some vendor-specific implementations do exist.

8: Note that this also implies that — with current standards in PDF-land — you can't asymmetrically encrypt PDFs for recipients using non-RSA key pairs.

A version of this article was originally published at https://mvalvekens.be/blog/2021/pdf-as-she-is-wrote-2.html

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