Your Printer May Be Spying On You

Dennis Faas's picture

In yet another case where government appears to be above the law, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has issued a report warning that your printer may be spying on you.

Some color laser manufacturers are encoding each page with identifying information -- secret code that could be used to identify the printer and, potentially, the person who used it. Without your knowledge or consent, an act you assume is private could become public. What's worse is that there are no laws to prevent abuse.

There's little to stop the Secret Service from using printer codes to secretly trace the origin of non-currency documents. No law regulates what sort of documents the Secret Service or any other domestic or foreign government agency is permitted to request for identification, not to mention how such a forensics tool could be developed and implemented in printers in the first place.

While allegedly used for identifying counterfeiters, the government is most likely using the ability to determine who may have printed what document for what purpose. The FBI has amassed more than 1,100 pages of documents on the American Civil Liberties Union since 2001, as well as documents concerning other non-violent groups.

Revelations of this sort are not new. The technology has been around for years. With printer prices declining, the number of models with this feature is again causing concerns. A growing number of printers use technology that leave microscopic yellow dots on each printed page to identify the printer's serial number -- and ultimately, you.

The dots -- invisible to the naked eye -- can be seen using a blue LED light. Lorelei Pagano, director of the Central Bank Counterfeit Deterrence Group, says the Secret Service uses the dots to investigate counterfeit bills made with laser printers.

Privacy advocates worry that the little-known technology could be used to ensnare political dissidents, whistle-blowers or anyone else who prints materials the authorities may want to track.

Tests conducted by the EFF have found the dots produced by 111 color laser printers made by 13 companies, including Xerox, Canon, Hewlitt-Packard, Epson, and Brother.

The dots are only produced on laser devices, not ink-jet printers. The dots tell authorities the serial number of a printer that made a document, and in some cases, the time and date it was printed. The Secret Service is allegedly the only U.S. agency that has the ability to decode the information.

What is known about the technology is that it is part of the counterfeit deterrence system set up by Federal Reserve banks and the central banks of other G10 nations.

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