Most people don’t expect their printer to be a doorway for hackers. And in the old days, they would have been correct. Older printers used to connect to only one computer at a time via a parallel port. It wasn’t until later when USB came into the picture that the connection between printer and computer became easier to make.
Networked printing became the next big thing, with several computers in an office using a single printer for documents. Essentially, network printing transformed the printer into a computer-like device. Moreover, while this did offer a lot of convenience, those computer-like features also meant that a printer could get a virus, just as its traditional computer counterpart could.
Today, a printer is much more than just that. It can scan, copy and fax as well. This increased sophistication has led to more vulnerability. Today, anyone can print wirelessly using Wi-Fi technology. Wi-Fi allows a printer to communicate with Internet-connected devices like smartphones and laptops, and even connect to the internet themselves.
How the Wireless Printer Can Pose a Risk
Wi-Fi is certainly convenient. But it also has a dark side. When using Wi-Fi, anyone within a certain range of the signal can also use that signal. In the case of a wireless printer, anyone can access the connection to print documents. While the thought of losing ink and paper may not be a threatening one, consider that the individual would also be able to see the past, present and future jobs that are sitting in the print queue. All a hacker needs is access to a printer, and they can hack into the operating system of that printer to view the potentially sensitive security labels and other documents stored within.
As well, documents can be intercepted en-route from a computer or device to the printer via the Wi-Fi connection. What’s worse, if a printer has the capability to connect to the internet directly where embedded web servers await, and those servers are not properly secured, disaster could ensue.
Securing the Modern Printer
There are, thankfully, several ways to ensure that any wirelessly-connected printer is secure. One important suggestion is regularly to update the software associated with the printer. As mentioned earlier, an internet-capable printer can be just as vulnerable as a computer or router. It’s also important to install any patches as soon as they are released by the manufacturer.
Some printers allow printing directly from the printer’s RAM, or random access memory. This is a far more secure option, as once a print job has been completed, it can be erased immediately. As well, doing this means the printer’s internal hard drive is bypassed, foiling hackers.
Any network printers will need to have their permissions set so that control over who is and isn’t allowed to manage and send print jobs can be set. Although there is an option to allow everyone to do anything, choosing this is strongly discouraged.
You may also wish to consider disabling any reprint functions, which allow the same document to be printed any number of times.
Those printers with their Wi-Fi capability enabled will need to be protected with the proper level of security, which is WPA2 and not WEP.
You can also choose to track print jobs by date, time and even username, so that you know who has been printing documents and when.
Many of today’s printers include several security features, thanks to manufacturers becoming more aware of the risks associated with wireless printing. So it may pay to investigate these if the purchase of a new printer is in the budget.