OK, I admit it…I’m an unabashed geek.  Trust me, it comes with the territory of being an engineer.

Science fiction like Jurassic Park and Minority Report, while admittedly freaky, are also very intriguing from a ‘hypothetical’ standpoint.  It’s when you see the consequences of the abusive use of the science that it starts to get really scary.

That’s kind of how I feel about this little discovery.  But this one is real.

Did you know your printer might be watching you?  
I remember reading about this late last year when PC World first broke the story.

Peter Crean, a senior research fellow at Xerox, says his company’s laser printers, copiers and multifunction workstations, such as its WorkCentre Pro series, put the “serial number of each machine coded in little yellow dots” in every printout. The millimeter-sized dots appear about every inch on a page, nestled within the printed words and margins.

I’m honestly not sure what freaks me out more about this: the fact that it’s happening, or the fact that we are apparently not supposed to know about it.  

I had just about forgotten about it until today, when I saw it is back in the news.  Apparently the Electronic Frontier Foundation (website), a non-profit digital consumer e-rights watchdog, has cracked the code.

Many colour laser printers mark the pages they produce with tiny yellow dots that, according to technology watchdogs, can reveal information about you and your computer.
EFF researchers collected pages from various copy centres in California this summer and analysed them, using blue light to highlight the dots, which are barely visible under normal light. It took just a week to crack the code.

EFF and its partners report that the dots contains information about the date and time that a page was made, as well as the serial number of the printer used.

Now, obviously there are some very good reasons to have this technology, such as the stated goal of preventing counterfeiting and tracking documents found at crime scenes.  

But why the hush-hush about it?  As the EFF says:

…there are no laws to stop the Secret Service from using printer codes to secretly trace the origin of non-currency documents; only the privacy policy of your printer manufacturer currently protects you (if indeed such a policy exists). And 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.

With no laws on the books, there’s nothing to stop the privacy violations this technology enables.

No kidding.  I still remember (back in my youth) printing out the Anarchist’s Cookbook because I thought a lot of the stuff in there was really fascinating (for those who don’t know, it mostly has to do with the construction of pipe bombs, IED’s, etc.).  

I didn’t plan on actually making any of that crap, mind you, but we engineers are curious folk; I wanted to know how all this stuff I keep reading about works.

Imagine if I left that printout behind in a coffee shop or something.  The government would immediately have known the serial number of the printer that printed that.  

Now, being a good consumer, I may have registered my printer serial number with the company for warranty information.

Or maybe I purchased it at a big-box retail store with a credit card.

Either way, it could be traced back to me by someone who had interest.  

Now combine that with all the lifting/easing of laws under the Patriot Act for the government to acquire information.

Throw in the accounts of people being held in Federal prisons with no probable cause, and no protection from illegal search and seizure.

I could have found myself in Gitmo as a suspected terrorist, all for being curious about how a chemical bomb works.


So, is your printer watching you?  Here is a list of printers that are known to encode (or not to encode) information on printed sheets.

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