Adobe Acrobat Reader DC security update installs Chrome spyware

Adobe says the data collected by the new Adobe Product Improvement Program spyware is anonymous, thus innocuous

Adobe Acrobat Reader DC security update installs Chrome spyware
elhombredenegro (CC BY 2.0)

The latest version of the venerable (and oh-so-holey) PDF viewing routine, Acrobat Reader DC 15.023.20053, released this week, looks for information about your Google Chrome surfing habits. Without your knowledge or consent, the security patch installs a Chrome browser extension that's spyware, pure and simple.

The situation's a little more complex, but for most people using Adobe Acrobat Reader, Chrome spyware comes along for the ride.

If you haven't looked at the Adobe Acrobat Reader lately -- I haven't used it in years, due to security concerns -- this latest privacy twist warrants your attention. Unfortunately, there are three distinct versions of Acrobat Reader making the rounds, and this spyware "feature" affects only one of them.

In April 2015, Adobe put Acrobat Reader in the cloud, creating Acrobat DC. Those who haven't gone to the cloud are still running Reader XI, which will lose support in October 2017. Acrobat DC is split into two branches, the "continuous release track" -- the one affected by the spyware this month -- and the "classic release track," which freezes the feature set at 2015 levels.

Adobe Acrobat Reader routinely receives a dozen or more security patches every month. As Lucian Constantin reported in PC World, this month, 29 security holes were plugged. The latest version numbers:

  • Reader DC continuous release track: 15.023.20053
  • Reader DC classic release track: 15.006.30279
  • Reader XI: 11.0.19

As reported by Catalin Cimpanu on BleepingComputer and confirmed by Martin Brinkmann at ghacks, installing the DC continuous release track patch, which is the one that most Acrobat Reader users will install, brings along an extension for Google Chrome only, on Windows only. The Chrome extension is installed without notifying you or asking for permission. It's called "Adobe Acrobat" and it can:

  • Read and change all your data on the websites you visit
  • Manage your downloads
  • Communicate with cooperating native applications

Fortunately, if you're running Chrome when you install the latest Acrobat security patch, or when you restart Chrome after installing the security patch, Chrome's smart enough to detect that a new extensions has been added, and to ask your permission before enabling it (screenshot).

Unfortunately, the default action selected is to enable the spyware. Unless you specifically click Remove from Chrome, the extension gets installed and armed. You see this notification:

With this all-new extension, you can:

  • Easily turn web pages into PDF files so they look and act just like the page you converted -- keeping original links, layout, and formatting intact
  • Quickly switch from viewing PDFs in Chrome to opening them in Acrobat on your desktop
  • Explore Adobe Document Services to convert and combine files in your browser

Please note: With this release, you can share information with Adobe about how you use the application. This option is turned on by default. The information is anonymous and will help us improve product quality and features. You can change this setting at any time in Options for this Chrome extension.

If you're curious about this all-new extension/feature, you can read Adobe's Product Improvement Program explanation:

Adobe Product Improvement Program is designed to understand and anticipate customer needs in order to deliver world-class products and solutions. Participation is voluntary, and no personal information is collected… Since no personally identifiable information is collected, the anonymous data will not be meaningful to anyone outside of Adobe… Can I see the data that is collected before it is sent to Adobe? No, the information cannot be displayed. This program is designed to work for millions of users without affecting their product use, so the data is sent automatically. The data is also encoded so that it can be processed efficiently.

You're to be forgiven if that sounds a whole lot like Windows 10 data collection method. Apparently Adobe now feels it's entitled to install spyware without your permission.

Don't want to send your browsing history to Adobe? Try using a different PDF viewer: PDF X-Change Editor is free for the basic version (which puts a watermark on your pages when certain features are used), $43.50 for full version. I used to recommend Foxit Viewer, but its installer is now riddled with crapware. At least Foxit Viewer makes it possible to dodge the spyware, where Adobe Acrobat Reader does not.

If you installed the spyware by mistake, you can turn it off. In Chrome, click the three dots in the upper right corner, choose More tools > Extensions. To the right of the entry for Adobe Acrobat, click the trash can, then Remove. Restart Chrome and it's gone.

But why use a PDF viewer? Chrome already has good PDF viewing capabilities and a solid editor to help you fill out forms. (Tip: To save a filled-out form in Chrome, use Print, then Save as PDF.) If you're running Windows 10, Edge has a built-in PDF viewer.

Hubris. Sounds like a good name for a new product: Adobe Hubris.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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