Aaron Weaver has made a discovery the world could probably do without: He's found a way to spam your printer from the Web.
By using a little-known capability found in most Web browsers, Weaver can make a Web page launch a print job on just about any printer on a victim's network. The website could print annoying ads on the printer and theoretically issue more dangerous commands, like telling the printer to send a fax, format its hard drive or download new firmware.
Weaver, a security manager in the financial industry, described what he calls "cross site printing" in a research paper published Tuesday on the Ha.ckers.org website.
Weaver has launched the attack successfully with both the Internet Explorer and Firefox browsers. Because the attack works only on network printers, a printer plugged directly into a PC would not be vulnerable.
The attack is possible because most browsers can connect to the networking port used by most printers to look for new print jobs. So by using the browser as a stepping stone, attackers are able to connect with something they should never be able to reach: a printer on the local area network.
While nobody had previously demonstrated this particular hack, Weaver's research is based on two concepts that are well-known to Web security researchers: cross-site scripting attacks and vulnerabilities in the way browsers handle the Internet Protocol. "There is no precedent for [this hack]," said Robert Hansen, CEO of Web security consultancy SecTheory and owner of the Ha.ckers.org website. "But ... what he did was marry two different concepts that we've been talking about for a long time."
And if hackers figure out a way to make printers send out information about their print jobs to the Internet, Weaver's hack could have even more profound security implications, Hansen said.
Researchers have already shown how the browser can be used as a gateway to reach mail or VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) servers. They believe that the browser, with its ability to connect the Internet at large to the local area network, will be an increasingly important source of network attacks. "There are definitely a lot more exploits to be found," Hansen said.
Browser developers are already aware of the problem.
The Firefox browser blocks ports known to be associated with known security vulnerabilities, but it leaves many of them open because Web developers often use these ports in Web testing, said Mike Schroepfer, Mozilla's vice president of engineering, via instant message. "If this is a new problem, we can easily add 9100 to the blacklist," he said. "Folks here haven't done enough analysis to understand the impact yet."
Weaver said concerns that his research might unleash a new blight on the Internet caused him to hesitate before publishing his paper and hold off on publishing the complete exploit code.
By Wednesday he'd already received his first request from someone asking to look at his software -- someone saying he needed to show it to his manager in order to prove that it was a real issue. Weaver said he suspects the inquiry may have come from a spammer.
So will we see cross-site printer spam flying around our networks anytime soon?
Weaver believes there's a good chance of that happening. "Spammers will try anything," he said.