How to dispose of a printer securely

You might think printers have no private data. But some may retain vestiges.

dell e525w printer

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Philip Cassir writes in with a non-obvious problem:

I have two older printers, an Epson Stylus Photo 960 and an HP OfficeJet 800 Wireless printer, as well as an old CanoScan flatbed scanner I would like to get rid of securely, but I need to know whether these consumer products store any print or scanning jobs as I have scanned receipts and personal documents. There is nothing about that on the manufacturers’ sites. If these devices do have [internal storage], how can I find the modules and remove or destroy them?

My knee-jerk reaction was, nah, these devices are all “dumb”—they don’t contain internal storage that would queue anything once the power was removed. But my knee stopped spasming almost immediately, because it’s these sorts of assumptions that come back to bite users (and manufacturers) later, and even inexpensive printers have become more computer-like starting several years ago.

Let’s start with internal storage. While corporate-scale multi-function printers (MFPs) and copier/printers may have internal flash or even hard disk storage, depending on what kinds of tasks they carry out, no consumer device I’m aware of has non-volatile storage for documents and scans.

Multifunction printers can have enough volatile memory (regular old RAM) to queue dozens or even hundreds of pages scanned or coming through as a fax or while waiting to be printed, pulling the power instantly erases whatever was stored. Many printers can accept flash memory cards from cameras, so make sure you don’t leave one of those inserted, as it may contain personal photos.

The line between business and consumer hardware has blurred in recent years as the premium for more sophisticated features has dropped, and if you’re in a small office or had to purchase an expensive printer/copier for some specific feature, it’s possible you’ve crossed a storage line, too. Just in case you have an oddball model with internal storage, checking the manual for a reference to such a thing isn’t a bad idea—though it would certainly be touted as a feature and cost extra, so it’s unlikely you’d miss it.

The more important task is to delete settings stored in the small amount of flash memory used to retain values when the power is off, because networked and Internet-connected printers can be configured to receive files and print jobs over the Internet, or email documents to you or store them in a service like Dropbox as they’re scanned in or received as faxes.

Most printer utility software or the front panel used for direct setting changes has a factory-reset or restore-to-default option. Make sure and go through that reset process and check that it actually happened.

Consumer scanners that aren’t part of an MFP, to my knowledge and experience, have no permanent storage. I can’t think even of a high-end single-function scanner that I’ve ever used that relied on local storage; they all connect to computers or other host devices to pass the data along.

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