Printer Errors in the 2016 US Election

29 March 2018

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The personal printer has caused some major upsets over the last few years in the worlds of journalism and politics. From whistle-blowers being exposed from unique identifiers left on the printer paper to unsecured networks being exploited, the 2016 Elections had their fair share of printer errors.

Failures to connect, unknown error messages and low-ink cartridges encourage people to take as many shortcuts that will lead to whatever they need to be being printed.


I counted, in 2017 I sent 61 emails from my personal email account to either my work email address or my friends email addresses begging for something to be printed for me.

From the email leaks from when Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State it seems that we have that in common.

Hilliary print

The claim by the Republican party is that Hillary Clinton during her time as Secretary of State asked her maid Marina Santos to print out classified and sensitive documents without the correct clearance for high-level printing.

The Snopes article Unfair Maidin' rates the claim as Unproven. As far as we can see Clinton did ask her to print out various documents but from the leaked emails they seem to be all unclassified. While the claim may be unproven, it is undeniably the impact the ¨pls print me¨ requests had on the 2016 US elections.

When sending documents between email addresses you are not only creating a network graph – creating links between either your personal and work email addresses or between your group of colleagues or friends.

Tip: Go through the pain of setting up your printer to work with your computer. If you are working on sensitive documents give them to whoever is going to print them on a USB stick, between encrypted emails or a secure cloud service such as OwnCloud.

Paper Jams

Reality Winner (real name), a former NSA government contractor, was charged in June 2017 with releasing national security information and violating the Espionage Act. She was jailed for sending a classified document to a media outlet to expose Russian hacking efforts leading up to the US 2016 election.

The story goes that she printed out the document at work – the NSA – using a colour printer and sent it to a media outlet who published the PDF. Unknown to many before this story is that many colour printers embed grids of dots that when recoded tell a story of where, when and which printer printed out the document. Allowing whoever can decrypt these dots to track every document and the printer that produced it. In this case it is thought to have led the NSA straight to Reality's door.

Microdots Microdots

Images taken from EFF´s DocuColor Tracking Dot Decoding Guide

Tip: Colour printers can spy on you so use their less colourful cousins – the black and white printer. Join this Investigating forensic watermarks on printers mailing list. These guides by EFF and this blog post by Erratic Rob demonstrate you how to decrypt the microdots.

Network Error

There are security flaws on many printers. Flaws like remote data access, out-of-date firmware, open ports, secret admin account backdoors, or even having any passwords initiated.

There are some cases of printers being taken hostage remotely and a ransom being demanding for the control of the printers to be relinquished. In other cases insecure remote scan functionalities are exploited and simple hacks can be set up to have access to whatever is being scanned.

While some hackers are highlighting these insecurities in a playful way – see the story of the hacker and who made 160,000 printers print out ASCII art – others are using it to divide.

In March 2016 a known hacker and white supremacist sent flyers containing racist and anti-Semitic images and slogans to every publicly accessible printer in North America. It was reported by at least 12 universities that they received these print outs. Who knows how many others received these flyers that called "the white man" to action while tensions were high during the primaries of the US election.

Tip: Improve the security of your printer, in particular close any open ports – follow guides online like this one.