Xerox Advises Securing Data in Printer Hard Drives

Network printer and MFP hard drives may contain sensitive data that can be secured using encryption or overwriting.
Today's network printers may still look like printers and copiers, but they have hard drives -- which means that, like desktop, notebook and server computers, and external storage, they can contain sensitive data, which should not be accessible to inappropriate users.

One company that's helping raise awareness of the issue, problems and solutions of data residing on printers and MFPs is Xerox Corporation, with an ongoing series of webinars and other events, including the webinar "Hard Disk Security Webinar: Is your confidential data at risk?" which the company conducts a few weeks ago for resellers, and has scheduled one for customers, for Tuesday, August 10, 2010 at 10AM PT.

I spoke last week with one of the scheduled speakers, Larry Kovnat, Manager, Product Security at Xerox Corporation. (Here's a short video of Kovnat on this topic.

Because these devices have hard drives and CPUs, Kovnat points out. "This makes them intelligent nodes. We try and make sure people look at it this way."

This doesn't mean that these devices are inherently dangerous, but, says Kovnat, "they come with a set of risks that the plain old copier never had. And so they have to be managed, with awareness of those risks."

The risk in terms of hard drives or other non-volatile storage (meaning, storage where data doesn't disappear when the power is turned off) is protecting personal information and other sensitive data, from being accessed by inappropriate parties, whether over the network, or by removing the hard drive and examining it directly as if it were an external hard drive.

(For simplicity, "disk" and "hard drive" also means flash storage like a Compact Flash or Secure Digital card, or embedded flash RAM.)

Xerox's efforts to help ensure the security of data on printers and MFPs includes providing it in their products, and helping customers be aware of these features, and why and how to use them.

First, says Kovnat, users need to understand why there are disks in these devices. "Typically, this is more an issue for MFPs than printers, although those may have disks, too. As a device becomes more complex -- has more functions -- it may need this internal storage."

A hard drive, for one thing, lets a machine server multiple users -- lets them "submit" and queue jobs, which get "buffered" -- stored -- on the hard drive until their turn comes to be printed. "The disk is a FIFO -- First-In, First-Out -- buffer," says Kovnat. "To let the machine serve multiple clients, you need some way to manage the incoming throughput. It establishes a print server, a queue, and uses the disk to buffer the jobs." The device may also need to save data to if it's doing image processing, like turning a file into a MARC file before printing it. "The risk is that after a job is done, MARCed and printed, there may be some residual data left behind associated with that job," says Kovnak. And, as with computers, even if the system "deletes" a file, that doesn't actually remove file contents, just frees up those spaces on the disk for re-use, so if a large print job that contains sensitive data is followed by a smaller print job, some sensitive data might still be on the drive.

Also, Kovnak points out, "Some of our more complex devices let users store jobs for later reprinting, or to hold the job until the user arrives and requests the file" (so that it won't be sitting around where an unauthorized person can read or take it).

As with computers, says Kovnak, there are two ways to counteract the risk of that data being accessible: "Encryption, which protects the data while it's still in use, and overwriting, after a job is done."

How can you tell if your printer or MFP could have data at risk?

"It's hard to tell just by looking whether a device has a disk," Kovnat points out. "If it's a device you already own, you have to check the product description. SMBS can the vendor representative."

According to Kovnat, many Xerox devices include both encryption and overwrite. "The encryption feature in most of our devices is enabled by default; the overwrite is not enabled by default," says Kovnat. "For most of our products, they're now standard, but they may not be turned on."

Xerox also offers data security features that can be downloaded, for some machines -- but, he cautions, "for older products -- ones introduced five or more years ago -- these features may not be available." And while the installed base of printers turns over rapidly as a whole, many users hang onto their printers and MFPs, "the Xerox 914 is still out there and in use," according to Kovnat. (According to Xerox, the Xerox 914, introduced in 1959, was "the first automatic, plain-paper commercial copier.")

It's important to remember that the concern doesn't automatically go away when your company is done with a printer, Kovnat stresses. For unencrypted disks that a company wants to re-use, one option is to overwrite the disk to the point where previous data cannot be retrieved -- the same as what gets done with hard drives from desktops, notebooks, and servers, external hard drives, NAS/SANs, and so on.

If the company doesn't plan to re-use the disk, Xerox has a Data Crush Program, where drives that qualify for the program get shredded. "Machines including the disk go into a big industrial crusher, and are then hauled off to a materials recyclers where the crushed material is put through an industrial shredder to quarter-or-small sized pieces which are then separated," says Kovnak. Here's a video of Xerox's Competitive Product Crush Program.

(Many channel partners and other companies offer certified disk/data destruction services; you can also buy hard drive shredders, and even un powered hard drive whacking mechanisms... or -- being sure you're wearing goggles and know what you're doing -- you can try using a power drill or a real big hammer.)

Security in terms of your company's network printers and MFPs isn't just about data stored on them, Kovnat adds. These devices are, in essence, specific-purpose computers... which means that they're running an operating system, and are vulnerable to network attacks and other exploits, letting them be used as an entry point into. And often, the operating system and application software on printers is out-of-date, leaving the devices more vulnerable to network-based attacks.

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