4 must-know facts about secure mobile printing

Mobile printing is making major strides right now. Is your company's mobile print security up to speed?

When you think about mobile devices and security, printing probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind. Being able to put bits and bytes on paper remains a realistic priority for many office workers, though — yes, even now, in 2018 — and smartphones are increasingly the vessels being used to transmit that data.

Between the phones and the printers themselves, there's plenty of room for security error. Fear not: With the proper precautions, you can make mobile printing safe, simple, and effective for your organization's employees. All it takes is a bit of big-picture planning.

First things first: Wrap your head around the multilayered meatball that is mobile printing and give yourself the foundational knowledge you need to properly tackle this security challenge. Here are four key facts to get you started:

1. Mobile printing is absolutely relevant for a modern business

Printing, schminting, you may be thinking. Who still needs paper in our digital age? Turns out, a lot of people — including, most likely, workers in your very own office. "People have been saying for 20 years that paper is going to go away, but realistically, we're far from that happening," says Allison Correia, a senior research analyst with IDC.

IDC has been predicting the ongoing growth in mobile printing since way back in 2013, when the firm first suggested that folks were actually printing more from mobile devices despite printing less from desktop computers. Now, Correia and her fellow researchers believe we're on the cusp of a new mobile printing milestone — one in which smartphones and tablets will finally catch up to desktops in their native printing prowess.

By 2020, IDC predicts, printing from a smartphone or tablet won't be much different than printing from a traditional PC. You'll be able to send data from most any process directly to a printer, quickly and easily — without the need for any specialized software or configuration.

"Mobile printing is still very much a thing, and it's increasing," Correia says. What's more, companies that properly support mobile printing "improve productivity and add overall business value to workers," according to IDC's most recent IT survey — and those effects are only expected to become more pronounced as time moves on.

2. Printers are among the most overlooked pieces of the corporate security puzzle

For all the use office printers tend to get, they sure don't get a lot of attention when it comes to IT security. A 2017 report by business research firm Quocirca found a whopping 61 percent of large enterprises admitted having at least one data breach stemming from insecure printing within that year. That lines up almost exactly with the results of a 2015 report by the Ponemon Institute, in which 60 percent of IT professionals said their companies had suffered printer-related data breaches. More sobering yet, only 44 percent of the IT professionals surveyed in Ponemon's study said their companies included printers as part of their corporate security policies.

IDC calls printer security an "overlooked element of a comprehensive IT security strategy" — an area that "lag[s] well behind overall IT security for most organizations." You'd better believe that's cause for concern.

"The lack of oversight within the print and document environment leaves businesses vulnerable to data- and device-level security breaches through compromised firmware, unsecured networks and document repositories, and information/data leakage," the firm noted in its 2017 global security assessment.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that the internet is filled with hair-raising tales of printer-based flaws and intrusions. Even so, far too many companies continually fail to devote the proper resources to keeping their own printers secured — and as phones increasingly connect to those machines, that's bound to become even more problematic.

3. Secure mobile printing standards are starting to shape up

Getting a mobile device to communicate securely and effectively with a printer has always been a bit of a headache. Sure, Apple has its integrated AirPrint system for secure wireless printing from iOS devices — for better and for worse — but iPhones make up a relatively small chunk of the smartphone market, even in the enterprise. The lion's share of devices these days run Google's Android operating system, and they've long lacked a simple and built-in system for secure phone-to-printer communication.

Brent Richtsmeier has been working to correct that. As chairman of the Mopria Alliance Steering Committee, Richtsmeier has overseen efforts to bring a secure universal standard to Android-based printing — and with last year's Android 8.0 Oreo release, those efforts paid off.

As of Oreo, Mopria's printing technology is integrated directly into Android's open source code. That means anyone with a phone running Android 8.0 or higher can find and securely connect to a compatible printer — a designation held by about 97 percent of all printers sold, according to Mopria's estimates — without having to download third-party software or wade through a labyrinth of complex menus.

"Our first step is just making sure phones can connect," Richtsmeier says. "As soon as you have that happening, making sure things are secure is key."

Richtsmeier points out the software's automatic support for end-to-end encryption along with its enterprise-friendly features like pull printing and password protection. Mopria also just certified its first enterprise print server, the YSoft SafeQ, and expects to see more such products added over time.

4. Creating a safe mobile printing environment doesn't have to be difficult

Even with connection standards in place, the toughest part about making mobile printing secure is simply thinking about it — and factoring it into your organization's overall policies. Printers aren't just dumb peripherals anymore, and regardless of what types of devices are communicating with them, they need to be treated with the same level of care as any connected appliance.

To wit:

  • Configure all printers  to support encryption.
  • Ideally, configure printers to support authentication as well.
  • Always protect wireless printer ports.
  • Contain those ports in the same part of your network as other vulnerable devices that demand constant monitoring.

Such ongoing observation is essential, especially since many printers either don't receive regular software patches or require manual effort to find, download, and apply available updates. "A printer is a mini-computer in and of itself," Richtsmeier says. "Any printer you see in the office has the capability of a computer.” That’s an important reality to remember when it comes to IT policy.

The involvement of mobile devices doesn't change any of that, but it does add a layer of vulnerability into the equation — simply by virtue of the fact that phones have so many potential security issues of their own. "Probably the most vulnerable piece of any system, print or otherwise, is a mobile device," Richtsmeier says. "They're carried everywhere, go everywhere, and connect to all kinds of networks."

In addition to printer-side best practices, then, it's imperative to keep up your company-wide mobile device hygiene. Take advantage of things like:

  • Full-device encryption
  • Password enforcement
  • Network control
  • Remote wipe capabilities
  • Allowing only devices that are reasonably up to date with their OS versions and security patches on your network

"Printing has always been overlooked as something that needs to be secured," says IDC's Correia, citing the lingering mindset that merely having a printer behind a firewall is a sufficient security measure. "Everyone's starting to realize that that's not enough."

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