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Not securing your printers can be deadly – How to protect IT networks from attack

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Featured image credit:Ian Kennedy via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

With a web-enabled or multifunction printer, your workforce can perform a multitude of tasks, such as wireless printing and digital document creation, to boost efficiency and improve productivity. However, the convenience and capabilities of a connected printer comes at a cost.

Just like any other machine or device that can access your network, printers pose a serious threat to IT security. A recent Xerox-McAfee study revealed that more than half (54 per cent) of employees think computers pose the biggest security threat to their company’s network compared to other IT devices. But in addition to not recognising the potential vulnerabilities of printers, roughly the same percentage of people (51 per cent) said they have copied, scanned or printed confidential information at work.

So, as well as the ability to access your network via a web-enabled or multifunction printer, cyber criminals may even be able to access valuable data with the greatest of ease. With this in mind, here is how to protect IT networks from attack by securing your printers properly.

How unsecured printers can come under attack

Unsecured printers provide hackers with a potential point of entry to access your company’s network. Once they have installed malware, hackers can then use the printer to control or gain access remotely.

64 percent statEven so, a worrying number of businesses continue to ignore this threat. According to 2,000 IT professionals across North America, EMEA, Latin America, and Asia Pacific surveyed by the Ponemon Institute, only 44 per cent of respondents said their company’s security policy includes network-connected printers.

On top of that, 64 per cent of IT managers believe their printers are infected with malware anyway, while 56 per cent of enterprise companies ignore printers in their endpoint security strategy.

How hackers and malware can infiltrate computer networks, servers and documents

Illustration depicting a computer dialogue box with a malware concept.

Once malware is installed on your network via a connected printer, hackers can infiltrate your servers and documents in the following ways:

  • Access sensitive or confidential information
  • Change the printer’s settings or LCD readout (see featured image at top of this post)
  • Launch denial-of-service (DoS) attacks
  • Use the printer to receive and transmit faxes
  • Send unauthorised print jobs
  • Retrieve saved copies of documents
  • Eavesdrop on network printer traffic
  • And much more

These tasks might seem a little bizarre or pointless, but it just goes to show how much control a hacker can gain by accessing your network via an unsecured printer.

With the expanded use of mobile technologies, growing armies of remote workers, and the increased rate of malware infection, the proliferation of printer attacks shows no signs of slowing down either. Therefore, it is imperative you implement appropriate security measures.

Typical procedures include educating employees about security, user identification via PINs or other verifications, and data encryption protocols to prevent jobs being intercepted while travelling across a network. However, HP has developed various technologies that go above and beyond the standard call of duty to secure its range of connected printers.

How HP’s security features help to prevent and combat attacks

HP claims that its latest generation of printing devices are “unique in the marketplace, because they offer three key technologies together designed to thwart attackers’ efforts and self-heal. These features automatically trigger a reboot in the event of an attack or anomaly.”

Following a reboot, HP’s JetAdvantage Security Manager will automatically assess and, if necessary, remediate device settings to comply with pre-established company policies. This means there is no need for your IT team to take action. However, administrators can still be notified via HP management applications including JetAdvantage Security Manager and ArcSight.

The three key technologies that HP alludes to are:

  • Run-time intrusion detection – “Most of us wouldn’t leave our computers running unguarded,” notes HP. “Yet few vendors offer this basic level of protection for their imaging and printing devices.” For this reason, HP has developed run-time intrusion detection, which helps protect devices while operational and connected to a network at the point when most attacks happen. Run-time intrusion detection can also check for anomalies during firmware and memory operations.
  • HP Sure Start – As HP explains: “The BIOS is a set of boot instructions used to load fundamental hardware components and initiate the HP FutureSmart firmware of an enterprise-class HP device.” When devices power on, HP Sure Start will help safeguard your printer from attack by validating the integrity of the BIOS at every boot cycle. If it detects a compromised version, the machine will restart using a safe ‘golden copy’ of the BIOS.
  • Whitelisting – “Like a PC’s operating system, firmware coordinates hardware functions, runs the control panel, determines what features are available when printing, scanning, or emailing, and provides network security,” says HP. “Compromised firmware could open your device and network to attack.” To prevent this from happening, Whitelisting ensures only authentic and known-good HP code that has not been tampered with can be loaded into memory. If an anomaly is detected, the device will reboot to an offline and secure state, while also sending a notice to IT to reload the firmware.

HP’s print security measures work in a continuous circle. Sure Start validates the integrity of the BIOS code, Whitelisting checks the firmware by only accepting authentic code, the JetAdvantage Security manager finds and fixes any affected device settings, while run-time intrusion detection provides continuous monitoring and shuts down if an attack occurs.

The importance of printer security

From the results of various studies, it is clear that printers remain an overlooked and often ignored security risk. Because members of staff don’t often realise this when going about their day-to-day responsibilities, several IT professionals are pessimistic about being able to prevent the loss or theft or data.

Although organisations should take a proactive approach towards printer security anyway with measures such as employee training, user identification, and data encryption, vendors like HP are on hand to keep hackers and malware at bay.

Thanks to technology that can automatically detect an attack, shutdown systems immediately, and reboot safely, businesses no longer need to worry about the network vulnerabilities of web-enabled or multifunction printers.

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