Monday, April 19, 2010

Copiers make more copies than you think

There's a frightening story on tonight's CBS Evening News. Since the early 2000s, digital copiers (typically, office copiers that also serve as printers and/or fax machines) have included hard drives. When these copiers are taken out of service, they're often sold on the used equipment market. CBS and a consultant purchased four digital copiers from a New Jersey company, solely on the basis of the number of copies made on them; the network had no idea where they'd come from, and paid an average of $300 per machine.

In a few hours, the consultant removed the hard drives from the four copiers and downloaded their contents. One copier came from the Buffalo, NY police department's vice squad, and had lists of wanted sex offenders and copies of complaints that should not have become public knowledge. A second copier from Buffalo's police narcotics squad had lists of suspected drug dealers that the department was pursuing.

A third copier had sensitive blueprints from a building being built near Ground Zero in New York, plus copies of payroll checks and paystubs including addresses and social security numbers. The final copier, from a medical insurance company, held a jackpot: Medical records for hundreds of patients, including medical histories, medications and diagnoses, none of which should have ever been released. The same company that supplied CBS with the four used copiers shipped two batches of copiers to Argentina and Singapore that same day.

If that doesn't scare you, it should. Anything that you copy, print or fax on a digital copier is likely to be stored on the copier's hard drive, and few companies have policies for purging those drives when they sell or return the copiers. Imagine what you'd find on the hard drives of copiers at FedEx Office, for example. Who hasn't used one of those copiers to copy bills, or to make copies of income tax forms?

An executive from Sharp's U.S. subsidiary said that the company is trying to make its customers aware that they need to purge their hard drives, but it charges a significant amount for the software. If this report gets traction, as I think it will, look for governmental inquiries and a call to make digital copiers purge their hard drives automatically or on demand, without requiring the purchase of additional software. For now, you might consider buying your own all-in-one machine to copy or fax anything of a sensitive nature.
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