Printer/Scanner/Copier/Privacy Violator?

I’ve been a sole practitioner for the last 7 years. Of the main office supply issues that continually crop up, chief among them are (1) paper, and (2) printer cartridges. Now, I’m fortunate in that I don’t practice in an area that has huge demands for document production (I’m thinking primarily of the family law/real estate law domains, whose demands for paper keep the forestry industry alive). Nevertheless, I go through a fair amount of paper and cartridges.

Like most small offices, I engaged in the “ink jet vs. laser” debate a number of years ago and, like most small offices, the laser printer eventually won out. Cartridges were still a big issue, but the frequency with which I bought them seemed to diminish. Two years ago, I broke down and leased a digital photocopier. My practice had reached a point where it just made more economic sense to have something fast and cost-effective for copying, scanning and printing documents. I chose a copier with a built-in hard-drive so I could scan my documents to PDF (an enormous time- and money-saver for a moderate techie like me).

With the arrival of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (“PIPEDA”), lawyers have had to consider – in addition to the actual storing of client records for the requisite length of time – the method in which those documents are stored. Storage of the physical file and documents is a given, but electronic storage is also a good plan: ease of access, the ability to search for and build precedent documents – these all make sense in our current electronic age.

Many lawyers wouldn’t think twice about securing their computerized documents. Firewalls, anti-virus software and various forms of data protection are ubiquitous. Sure, now that we’ve scanned all of those documents to our computers, they’re safely inside our electronic fortress, right?

Not so fast. What about the digital photocopier?

Like the one in my office, most new digital photocopiers contain a built-in hard-drive. This drive holds add-ons for the copiers’ operating system as well as the software used to convert the copied document to PDF and forward it along the network to either the office server or the lawyer’s individual computer. What many lawyers may not realize is that it also keeps a copy of the document image. Forever.

I mentioned PIPEDA for a reason: businesses in Canada now have a requirement for a privacy policy. That policy needs to address how, where and why the business will retain clients’ private information. The big question is whether that policy addresses what the business will do with the photocopier hard-drive once the lease is up. It should. 

A recent CBS News investigation revealed that many used photocopiers are warehoused, cleaned up, and then resold without any effort on the part of either the previous leaseholder or the leasing company to remove the old images from the hard-drive. This raises a number of issues – specifically for lawyers – on the security of their clients’ information.

The CBS News investigation found criminal records, medical records, birth certificates, drivers’ licenses and electronic reams of private information. The most disturbing fact is that it didn’t take sophisticated, expensive software to remove this information. The investigator working with the journalist obtained these documents with the aid of freeware, downloaded off of the internet.

So what’s a poor sole practitioner to do? Firstly, a quick e-mail or letter to your photocopier provider would be a good idea. Ask them whether they have a date-wiping policy for old photocopiers and, if so, what is it and can they assure you that it will be used on your photocopier once the lease is up. Secondly, and probably more conveniently, ask whether they have an encryption program that can be uploaded to your photocopier. Encryption programs are readily available and rather inexpensive for the benefit they provide (usually several hundred dollars, but well worth the investment). These programs will digitally encrypt the images contained on your photocopier’s hard-drive, rendering them (almost) impossible to view should the drive ever be accessed by a third party in the future.

We live in an age of electronic convenience: computers and their peripheral components have made our office work incredibly simpler and more efficient. However, with every advance in technology, there are always new questions and concerns to be raised. In the case of digital photocopiers, these new questions can be answered with an old adage: “better safe than sorry”. 

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