A data breach can be one of the most devastating events any organization can experience. Everything changes in an instant. Not only does a hack into your networks run the risk of seriously crippling your business and exposing both your and your clients’ data, but the reputational damage to your company can take years to recover from.

Most organizations are well aware of the massive wave of cybercrime that has occurred over the last two years. These cyberattacks often come in the form of sophisticated attacks that breach and shut down a system until a ransom is paid.

Part of the reason for this uptick in online criminal activity is the explosion in remote work that occurred during the pandemic. Working in a distributed fashion and using our own devices has left sensitive data more vulnerable, since employees are not all working under the same blanket of company cybersecurity.

The Printer as an Endpoint

Many people are unaware that the humble printer is a key endpoint often used to gain access to a network and wreak havoc. The old-fashioned methods of printing—and the mechanics of printers in many organizations—have left IT infrastructure incredibly vulnerable to attack and are forcing a rethink of how the printing process is structured.

Printer Security as a Focus

A company’s print infrastructure has emerged as a key vulnerability that needs to be secured to protect the entire organization. As a result, organizations are increasingly focused on the security of their printing infrastructure.

Recent reports indicate that only one in five IT Decision Makers (ITDMs) are confident about the security of their print infrastructure, while an alarming 64% of companies have reported a loss of data as a direct result of insecure printing practices in the last year. Reasons vary, from malware to unsecured on-premise printers to unsatisfactory waste paper disposal, but they give a sense of the scale of the problem.

On the positive side, cutting-edge cloud technology is emerging as a potent defense mechanism for forward-looking companies.

What Is a Print-Based Security Breach?

A print-based digital security breach happens when attackers gain access to a network via a printer, a key endpoint for many organizations.

An endpoint is a key concept to understand in cybersecurity. It refers to a computing device, such as a printer, that communicates back and forth with the network. An endpoint attack targets various entry points into the networks—for example, smartphones and printers. The reason is that endpoints are routinely connected to both the internet and the corporate network, thus increasing the attack surface for a cybercriminal.

Print devices do not get enough attention when it comes to security planning. The printer is such an integral and familiar part of most organizations that its vulnerability to attacks tends to be overlooked. And it’s not just vulnerable to digital breaches, either—often, a catastrophic loss of data happens when somebody has unobstructed physical access to a printer and can simply walk out the door with sensitive documents left unattended at the printer.

Understanding How a Print-Based Security Breach Can Happen

One major security gap is often found in the “print spooler,” which is software that temporarily stores print jobs in a print server’s memory until the printer is ready to print them. This software is enabled by default on Microsoft Windows servers.

Microsoft frequently releases patches to fix vulnerabilities in the spooler, but sometimes they slip through the system, leaving the print queue exposed. An attacker can exploit a local privilege escalation (LPE) vulnerability and execute malicious code using the print spooler service.

That’s the problem at the heart of the infamous PrintNightmare vulnerability which emerged in mid-2021 and affected all devices running Windows 7 and higher software. Once the attacker breaches the security perimeter, they are able to perform operations with system-level privileges. This allows them the opportunity to access, edit, and delete sensitive data, and even go so far as to install new programs which can have a devastating effect.

The flaw was discovered and a patch was issued. But additional vulnerabilities have been discovered since, and it’s virtually certain that problems will keep emerging over time. Constant vigilance is required unless a company makes the decision to migrate away from traditional print infrastructure to a cloud print management system.

5 Tips for Avoiding Costly Breaches Before They Happen

There are a number of proactive steps that you can take to prevent a print-based breach from occurring within your organization. After all, it’s infinitely easier to provide security upfront that thwarts an attack or prevents an incident, as opposed to trying to fix it after the fact.

  1. Remove the need for TCP port access. Understand that the problem with shared print queues is that they require access to specific Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) ports. That brings with it access to hidden shares and folders within the operating system. This is a recipe for disaster and a potential goldmine for hackers to exploit. By moving print operations to the cloud, you are able to simplify those types of configurations, eliminate the need for vulnerable TCP ports, and dramatically enhance security.
  2. Remove the threat of legacy protocols. Another weakness inherent to the point-and-print system is the number of legacy protocols that are enabled by default. After all, Windows has essentially been running the same system since the 1990s. While there is no doubt that it does simplify integration with older systems, the downside is that it opens an opportunity for attackers to exploit the inherent weaknesses in older protocols. Legacy protocols on your printers must be disabled.
  3. Understand the drawbacks of multi-use servers. Print servers in most organizations are used for a multitude of purposes, including file sharing. Very few companies have the budget and discipline to use a print server for one dedicated purpose. The downside of a shared printer server is that it opens up the potential for vulnerabilities or misconfiguration of Access Control Lists (ACLs) or Active Directory group memberships that allow unauthorized users access to the print server function. Organizations that can afford it should consider dedicated printers with no extra functionality.
  4. Insist on world-class encryption. Robust encryption of data is part of a cloud-based service, and this is something that is simply not available in traditional on-premises printing services where data is sent across the network unguarded.

The long-term solution to all these problems is undoubtedly cloud printing. But this only secures the infrastructure and servers. So how can physical printer security be improved?

  1. Go beyond digital protection and implement a pull printing solution. It’s important not to underestimate the threat that unattended physical printers provide. One of the most serious physical security risks is simply sensitive documents that are left unattended at the device. The solution here is “pull printing,” in which a user walks up to a printer and authenticates at the device before their documents print.
  2. If possible, place the printer in an area with limited public—or even restricted—access. Record exactly who enters and exits the area and when they were there.
  3. Disable physical ports on the printer. This is to prevent people from inserting USB drives and making personal prints.

What Steps Should You Take After a Breach?

It’s important to have a plan of action in place so you can respond effectively to a data breach. It’s too late to try to come up with an effective response when it happens, in the pressure of crisis. Rather, be proactive and establish a chain of command so that everyone knows what is expected of them when it happens.

Use these four steps as the basis of formulating a plan that works for you:

  1. Take the printer offline immediately and secure physical access to the device.
  2. Assess what data was uncovered and what information has been made vulnerable.
  3. Alert all affected parties and customers about what has happened and that they may be vulnerable to hackers.
  4. Change all the passwords that allow access to that printer.

The Advantages of Cloud Printing Extend Beyond Security

In this article, we’ve taken a close look at the security benefits that come from transferring your print infrastructure to the cloud, but in fact, there are many other benefits from a successful cloud migration.

Not only do you dramatically reduce your IT infrastructure, maintenance, and printing costs but you also gain a better understanding of what’s going on in your printing operations, and how to manage them better. You can track printing metrics across the entire organization and gain useful insights into how, when, and where your printing budget is being used.

When you look at the big picture, it becomes clear that there’s never been a better time to move your printing services from a Windows-based action to a service that operates from the cloud. When you combine the robust security of cloud printing with its affordability, ease of use, and overall sustainability, the path forward for all your printing needs becomes obvious.

Connect with a Pharos print security expert and request a demo today. It’s the easiest and quickest way to ensure that your print program is secure and that you’re going the right way on your journey into the cloud.

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