According to a new study by researchers at Columbia University, it is possible for hackers to exploit Internet-enabled printers in such a way that they could catch fire. In the experiments, researchers observed that a virus infecting the printer could send power to the ink drying mechanism (called the fuser) continuously. Usually the fuser is used only briefly on each part of the paper, but researchers were able to activate the device repeatedly on the same section of paper, causing it to start to smolder.
This is a worrying development in computer security. Most of us are already aware of many of the hidden dangers of Internet viruses and have gotten into habits that protect us from viruses. However this virus has the potential to not only disable a computer but cause a fire in a home or office. The printer also becomes infected independently of the computer, meaning that the virus cannot be uninstalled with regular anti-virus software. The Columbia team only was able to “clean” the virus by physically removing certain parts of the printer and replacing them with new ones. Even detecting that there is a virus would be impossible without removing components and subjecting them to tests and examination
The virus infects printers when the owner unknowingly prints a document that has been embedded with a hidden virus. It rewrites the firmware of the printer, which doesn’t have security measures. n addition to causing fires, this virus can use printers to steal information from attached computers, create “botnets,” groups of hacked computers under the control of criminal hackers. Hackers could do anything from rendering printers inoperable, to simultaneously setting fire to thousands of printers. The team discovered the flaw on Hewlett-Packard LaserJet printer, but it is believed that it could affect millions of newer printers all over the world.
This discovery demonstrates one of the problems with printers that now have more computer-like components; with increased capability comes the risk of criminals exploiting that hardware. Older printers that had fewer computational components are less at risk than newer printers, the highest risk falling on printers that can connect to the Internet without a computer. These printers could potentially be infected with this virus even without the user printing anything.
HP claims that their newer printers are now equipped with security programs to prevent this exploitation, and hopes to work towards solving the problem.