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How Worried Should You Be About Your Printer Security?

When I was in graduate school, studying how institutions made decisions about their information security policies, I interviewed an IT worker who told me about a health clinic he had worked for. The clinic had hired a security consultant to come in and make sure all their systems for medical data were compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act by setting up standard security measures—encryption, access controls, a firewall. But then one day the printers in the clinic stopped working. So they brought in another consultant to fix the printers—and several months later discovered that he had fixed them by shutting off the clinic’s firewall.

If you’ve ever wrestled with a temperamental printer (and you probably have), you’ll recognize the impulse—the willingness to sacrifice anything from your network security to your firstborn child for a printer that will simply work. Printers are a uniquely irritating technology: They’re liable to fail you in the moments you most need them and to remind you how woefully dependent your high-tech, eco-friendly, digitized life still is on little pieces of paper.