Elsevier, one of the world's largest publishers of academic papers, said it adds a unique fingerprint to every PDF users download in an attempt to prevent ransomware, not to prevent piracy.
The company defended the practice after an independent researcher discovered the existence of the unique fingerprints and shared their findings on Twitter.
"Fingerprinting in PDFs allows us to identify potential sources of threats so we can inform our customers for them to act upon," an Elsevier spokesperson said via email. "This approach is commonly used across the academic publishing industry."
Jonny Saunders, a neuroscience Ph.D. candidate at University of Oregon who discovered the practice, said he believes Elsevier is trying to surveil its users and prevent people from sharing research without paying the company. "The subtext there is pretty loud to me," Saunders said. "Those breaches/ransoms are really a pretext for saying 'universities need to lock down accounts so people can't skim PDFs.'"
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