The Washington Post

State Department fire caused by hackers?

A fireman extinguishes a fire at the 25th Fire Fighting Olympics in Manila March 25. (NOEL CELIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The odd thing about it was that the fire started somewhere around 5:30 a.m., long before anyone had arrived at work. The rumor was that a printer on a desk being used by State’s China team somehow ignited and started a fire.

We jokingly speculated that maybe a Chinese listening device in the printer over-heated and set off the blaze. Turns out, that may not have been as far-fetched as we thought.

A Loop fan alerted us to news stories four months ago that said Hewlett-Packard and other printers could be hacked and made to catch fire. (It’s unclear what brand was in use at the State Department office.)

The alleged problem was first reported Nov. 29 by MSNBC , which cited a study by the computer science department of Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, conducted with federal and industry grants.

The study, MSNBC reported, concluded that printers could be hacked and given “instructions so frantic that it could eventually catch fire.”

HP quickly issued a statement decrying “sensational and inaccurate reporting”’ and said all its computers were equipped with thermal switches which would prevent such fires.

The company said that, while it had “identified a potential security vulnerability with some HP LaserJet printers,”without a firewall, it was working on an “upgrade to mitigate this issue.”

So maybe the Chinese figured out. . .

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.


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