Beware - the office spy may be lurking in the corner

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2012, 12:00am


Photocopiers have long become a necessity in the modern office, but be warned that they may be a silent spy placed among the cubicles, according to a white collar crime specialist.

Rio Lam, a principal of specialist advisory services at accounting firm BDO, tells of an incident in South Korea, which may serve as a warning to companies in Hong Kong.

The chairman of a property developer in Seoul had gathered his staff in the boardroom for several days to discuss how to submit a proposal for an infrastructure project.

A month later, they were disappointed as the contract was awarded to a rival company.

What made the chairman more furious was that the rival proposal was an exact copy of his firm's, which obviously showed there was a spy in the company.

Investigators were called in to check all the employees of the company but no proof of any leak from the staff was found. In fact, the company had made sure that everyone in the conference room discussing the project did not carry any mobile telephones, check e-mails or use social networking websites to contact the outside world.

The investigators eventually found the spy - the photocopiers in the office. They found there was abnormal data transmission from a number of photocopiers inside the office to the rival company.

It was later confirmed that the machines had been hacked so that they would automatically transmit every document to the rival company.

According to Lam, the photocopiers can spy not only when they are in use but also when they are abandoned or discarded. This is because the machines have hard disk drives, just like computers. As such, all documents that pass through the machines will remain in the disks' memory.

Many companies, when replacing their photocopiers, simply sell their old ones in the second-hand market, which Lam said would mean allowing millions of undeleted documents possibly falling into unknown hands.

'There are vendors which internationally collect used copiers for treasure hunting,'' Lam warned.

A loss of company or client confidential information would be a nightmare with untold commercial consequences.

To avoid such occurrences, Lam offers some tips:

- Use stand-alone and non-network connected photocopiers for copying, printing, and scanning confidential documents as much as possible to reduce the chance of data leakage;

- Companies should disable the external e-mail function of the photocopiers and monitor data traffic to look for any unusual data transmission; and

- Before disposing of a photocopier, check with the vendors on how to clear the memory in the old machine's hard disk.