Could your printer be a Trojan horse? New Study Says Yes

  • November 30, 2011
  • Tech
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Could your printer be a Trojan horse? New Study Says Yes

Viruses and malware are everywhere, infecting Windows computers, and now there’s reports of smartphones getting some serious infections as well. But if there’s one thing we would think should be safe, is our printers. Unfortunately, researchers from Columbia University showed that’s not the case. They infected printers with their own self created malware which allowed them to take control, and make them do a series of commands. Their findings sounds like it’s straight out of a science fiction movie.

The brand they picked was HP and their LaserJet networked printers. These printers are connected directly to a local network instead of on a computer, so that all devices can share it and send print jobs. The way they initially found the vulnerability was to discover that these printers look up for possible firmware updates every time a print request is sent. Also, the printers they tested did no verification as to whether the firmware was valid or not. From there, it was a simple matter to infect them with special code, and giving them an access door into the device. Their reports claimed they could add the printer to a bot net, send random print jobs, change settings, heat the printer up, and almost make it catch fire. The results, according to the researchers, were not pretty, and made headlines across the web.

However, HP came back and said things were not that bad. First, only printers made before 2009 accept unsigned firmware updates. Since then, their devices will only install a new firmware if it’s been digitally signed by HP. Also, the printer has a built in check to prevent it from heating up too much and catching on fire, which is why the researchers never actually manage to burn one up. It’s the default behavior. Lastly, to actually infect the printer you would have to be on the local network, or the printer would need to be linked in such a way that it was accepting print requests from the whole Internet. They played down the results and indicated that the chances of such a problem occurring in the wild was close to non-existent. The results were achieved inside of a university lab only.

Overall, the actual window of opportunity is indeed quite small, and we’re unlikely to see a large number of printers suddenly starting to misbehave. Basically, outside of academic research, there’s no real incentive for bad guys to attack printers, and instead they’re likely to stick with new emerging platforms that are always connected, and have unproven security models, like tablets and smartphones. So while your printer has little to worry about, it’s still not the end of the road in the fight against malware.

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