When NSA contractor Reality Winner was suddenly arrested in June for leaking a classified report on Russian cyber attacks against the United States, the story came with a plot twist many of us didn’t see coming—apart from the name Reality Winner showing up in our feeds, of course.
Surprisingly, modern printer technology helped the authorities identify Winner as the leaker. That’s right—she got outed by printers. Here’s how it happened, and what businesses should know about the role printers play in cybersecurity.
How printer technology led the Feds to Reality Winner
Right after The Intercept broke its story about Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 US election, a subject that’s about as sensitive and politically explosive as it gets these days, the Justice Department issued an arrest warrant for Reality Winner.
How did they ID her so quickly? It turns out she printed the documents before leaking them—and the printer automatically slapped a digital watermark on the pages as it churned them out. Although the watermark is subtle, composed of a series of faint yellow dots, it quickly gave up the exact information the authorities needed to pinpoint which printer was used and when it printed the document.
From there, as Lifehacker reports, the US government determined that six people had printed the report. After auditing the individuals’ desk computers, investigators discovered that Reality Winner had exchanged emails with The Intercept. That finding gave them enough evidence to seek a warrant for her arrest.
While The Intercept received intense criticism for what seemed like a potentially epic opsec fail after its source was outed in record time, the story of the leak itself offers some insight to businesses on how the technology in their printers can improve their security.
Your printer can keep tabs on what’s printing
How does a business printer track the type of information that brought down Reality Winner? It uses a technology called steganography, where a piece of data is hidden—in this case, metadata used for tracking—inside another piece of data, like an image. Many color laser printers and copiers have this technology, so they essentially generate an invisible watermark on every document they print. Most new printers come with steganography built in, so there’s not really a way to prevent them from printing documents with this hidden tracking information. And it’s not exactly something just anyone can easily tamper or futz with to make it disappear.
Of course, if you’re not planning on leaking classified NSA documents to an online publication, the fact that your office printer is narcing on you may not keep you up at night. Joe from accounting probably doesn’t know (let alone care to figure out) how to analyze those hidden watermarks in your document that show exactly what time you printed the budget spreadsheet you all reviewed together during that two o’clock meeting you thought would never end, so you’re safe there. But you should think proactively about how to protect company data from being breached via printers. If Reality Winner could do it at the NSA—of all places—it could happen at your business, too.
What your business can do to stay secure
So, how can you improve printer security? You can start by taking advantage of today’s smart printers. Smart printers may look just like regular office printers, but they can come loaded with administrative tools that help businesses wrangle control over runaway print jobs and reduce printing costs. Together with managed print services, smart printers can make your business printing far more efficient and cost-effective. Some printers even detect and prevent attacks in real time, automatically self-healing from attacks in progress—they can be a real asset to your company.
You should also set unique administrative passwords on each of your printers. Many businesses just use default credentials, basically inviting attackers to walk in the door. Using discovery tools to detect rogue devices installed on the network is a smart step, too—especially if your users have a habit of connecting funky gadgets to your Wi-Fi without telling you.
Lastly, don’t forget to mandate regular security training to all your colleagues, so they know what common tricks to look out for and understand how to play their part in defending your business from an attack. Reality Winner showed us that modern printer technology can play a surprisingly central role in major security incidents, with incredibly profound consequences for our national security and current political dialogue. But she also highlighted an important takeaway for companies concerned about their own cybersecurity.
By taking advantage of technological advancements in printer security, businesses can defend themselves against future breaches or attacks. And that’s certainly a goal well worth pursuing in our unpredictable digital age.