Since as early as 2010, the problem of printer security has caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission. Almost a decade later, printers remain one of the pain points of internet security at home, on campus and at work. How exactly is your handy little device exposing you to cyber threats? How can you shield yourself from document tracking and personal information leaks?
Also referred to as printer stenography, modern printers leave barely visible traces on every piece of printed document to identify its serial number. This means that every piece of paper printed from your device can be traced back to you, with the right search effort. Initially introduced to fight counterfeit money, the continuous practice of printer stenography verges on privacy invasion today. To combat this, you could try removing the color cartridges, but often this will defect the print job or even damage the printer.
Personal and business printer of this decade have been equipped with an internal storage that helps prioritize printing jobs. This isn’t usually a problem; if anything, this feature makes life a lot easier. However, if you’re handling confidential information – scanning, faxing, or printing, automatic document memory might not be such a good idea.
Device decommissioning is also a major pain point. As mentioned, printers nowadays can process and hold a large volume of data. When decommissioning old devices, be very careful of where and how you dispose of it, because they may end up in the wrong hands. Take for example the Buffalo, N.Y. police department, which sold off some printers that contained identifying information related to ongoing police investigations. This information was easily discovered on the hard drives and were revealed as part of an exposé in 2010 by CBS News. Never undermine the risk of leaking information this way, as these cases are not unheard of.
Before letting go of any electronic gadget, it is important to check that no personal or sensitive information is stored on it. Sometimes printer hard drives are impossible to configure or wipe clean of memory. In that case, don’t sell it on Craigslist. If you are unable to empty the device, smash it. This is always a surefire way to keep your data stay safe.
This last one ought to go without saying. Studies show that 20 percent of print jobs are never retrieved by the owner of the document. Just consider how many times you yourself may have hit print and then completely forgotten to collect the document. Thousands of confidentiality breaches have taken place because of this simple human error. Accidentally taking the wrong document is also a common human error. Adding to the list, if paper runs out before or halfway through printing, your print job will be delayed until someone refills it, which again, exposes your documents to others. To counteract this, invest in a print management software can hold your print job in a secure print queue until you authorize it to print once you are physically at the printer.
If you connect a printer to Wi-Fi, not only can you print files from a proximity, depending on the device and the software you use, you can even access the hardware on the internet using a cloud printing service such as Google Cloud Print. While this feature brings great convenience, it also entails grave danger. Your Wi-Fi printer is at risk of being intercepted by unauthorized individuals who, with the right skills, can access documents that have either already been printed, or documents that are being sent through a wireless connection simply by hacking the cloud server. If these documents contain sensitive information like bank account details or personal identifications such as passports, the damages can be severe and far reaching.
There are almost 30 million multifunction printers in offices and homes throughout the U.S. and Western Europe, with the vast majority of them connected to a network. While particular printer manufacturers like HP has expressed serious concern about Wi-Fi security breaches, the issue at large is still overlooked by IT professionals and corporate employees.
If you must use a wireless printer, invest in a VPN router to protect all devices in your Wi-Fi network. More often than not, printers come with highly limited and restrictive customization options, such that it’s not possible to install a VPN software on its hard drive. This security pain point is found across most IoT (Internet of Things) devices, such as smart home appliances. A VPN router is an elegant solution that comes with a ‘built-in’ VPN, ready to encrypt all traffic sent through it – just plug and play. Alternatively, you can download a VPN for your router and configure it yourself. It might be slightly less stable than a VPN router, but it does the job.
While a VPN router secures traffic to and from printers, hidden trackers and hard drive memories can still sell you out. What’s the ultimate way out, you ask? To avoid leaking sensitive or confidential information, it’s best to keep it old school. Use pen and paper for anything you don’t want leaked. Tedious and backward, maybe, but better safe than sorry.