Restrictions of Electronic Transcripts

Electronic transcripts provide an efficient alternative to paper transcripts.  Unfortunately, security measures for some electronic transcripts render these documents virtually unusable in most settings.  To understand the capabilities and limitations of these transcripts, it is important to discuss a few key technologies that electronic transcripts may employ.

Digital Signatures

Electronic transcripts may provide a digital signature embedded in the document that cryptographically verifies that a document has not been modified since a particular signing key was used to sign it.  These signing keys may themselves be signed by a trusted "certification authority," which is one of a handful of organizations that can assert that a particular organization has rights to use a particular name.  Slate provides full support for documents with digital signatures.

Encryption and Digital Rights Management

In addition to digital signatures, when provided as PDF documents, electronic transcripts can also support encryption and digital rights management (DRM).  These technologies are related to one another, but are not codependent.  For example, a PDF document can be digitally signed without being encrypted or having DRM restrictions.

DRM is used to restrict how a document can be used.  For example, DRM may be used to prevent a document from being edited, printed, spliced, or combined with another document.  These "rights" are enforced through the PDF viewer and application and are transmitted as metadata on the PDF document.

Some electronic transcript providers use encryption to provide an additional layer of control over a document.  When implemented using tools such as Adobe LiveCycle Rights Management, the generated PDF documents have proprietary restrictions that prevent the documents from being opened or manipulated in any program, application, or system outside of Adobe Reader and Adobe Acrobat.  For example, such a protected document cannot be opened using Chrome, Apple Preview, Google Drive, or any other tool.  These restrictions affect the viability of the documents within Slate, too.  For example, Slate cannot display any pages from the document, nor can it extract pages, combine the pages with other documents, rasterize the pages for display in the Reader, and any other purpose.  This is unfortunately not a limitation of Slate but an inherent property of the proprietary way in which these documents are "protected."

To be clear, encryption and digital rights management is absolutely not necessary to ensure that an electronic transcript has not been altered or tampered with. Digital signatures provide this capability securely and effectively. DRM capabilities are marketed by some electronic transcript providers as a means for an institution to limit how often a document can be opened, whether or not it can be printed, etc.  These limitations unfortunately have widespread effects for document management systems, too.  The electronic transcript vendors are aware of these issues, but there has been no movement made to create documents in a way that would permit the electronic transcripts to be used electronically.  Ironically, to load these documents into Slate, one must print the documents (provided they permit this capability, which is often the case) and scan them back into Slate.  Attempting to print to a "PDF printer" will usually fail and will be blocked by Adobe.

We understand the inconvenience this can pose for both the student and the institution, and we continue to lobby for solutions that will enable institutions to use these electronic transcripts electronically.

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