If vigilance is the eternal price of liberty, a massive government-instigated conspiracy to track the sources of printed materials ought to have us all standing up and taking notice.

Caution: Your Printer is a Government Spy

It seems like there’s a conspiracy theory for everything. The government is controlling weather from a secret outpost in Alaska. Intelligence agencies are covertly capturing and reading every e-mail and monitoring every cell phone call around the globe. Leonardo da Vinci littered his creations with clues that Jesus Christ wedded Mary Magdalene.

And those sound downright believable compared to this one: The government conspired with manufacturers to hide a secret code on every page generated by a color printer or copier.

Sounds absurd, doesn’t it?

There’s just one problem. The last item is true.

PC World magazine first reported the news more than a year ago. “According to experts, several printer companies quietly encode the serial number and the manufacturing code of their color laser printers and color copiers on every document those machine produce.”

A senior research fellow at Xerox confirmed the report and revealed that his company’s method for hiding the information was a pattern of tiny yellow dots. The dots’ size and color make them almost impossible to spot with the naked eye. The U.S. Secret Service also confirmed the existence of the hidden codes, but assured PC World, “The only time any information is gained from these documents is purely in the case of a criminal act.” Specifically, the agency said, to assist its efforts in combating counterfeiting and document forgery.

The magazine’s scoop passed nearly unnoticed at the time, except by some tech-heads at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Armed with the hints in the PC World article, they set about trying to break the code.

A couple of weeks ago, using a microscope, a blue light, and some basic computer programming skills, they succeeded.

And while they were at it, they identified similar codes produced by products from other printer and copier manufacturers including Hewlett-Packard, Canon, Konica/Minolta, Lexmark, Tektronix and others.

In the case of Xerox, a small rectangular group of dots is repeated about every inch along the page. The pattern of the dots represents a set of numbers presented in binary code. When decoded, the dots reveal the date and time the item was printed and serial number of the printer which produced the page.

Armed with the serial number, the government can match the printer to a purchaser using the customer and product databases that manufacturers and distributors maintain.

To be sure, the zeal – not to mention the ingenuity – of the Secret Service in its fight against counterfeiting is commendable. But the notion that the government can use hidden information to track down a particular printer user is disquieting to say the least. No one doubts the Secret Service when it claims that it is employing the secret printer codes only to catch criminals. But when a Service spokesperson says that only criminals need fear the codes, he misses the mark by a long way.

Indeed, according to EFF, the same codes were found on pages produced by printers around the world. Consider a dissident in China, quietly printing anonymous leaflets to stir the cause of freedom. The secret printer codes would be a powerful weapon in the hands of the authoritarian Chinese government.

Think the manufacturers would stand firm and refuse to surrender the consumer information? Don’t be so sure. First, the Chinese have hackers too, and presumably, at least a few work for their government. It’s not unreasonable to believe that they someone could simply steal the information. Second, we’ve already seen major international corporations cave to Chinese government demands in order to preserve their access to the massive Chinese market. The most notable example is Yahoo!, which agreed to restrict access to certain content that the Chinese government found objectionable. How long would Minolta, Xerox or Canon have to deliberate before giving up a little customer information if faced with the threat of being shut out of China?

Equally disturbing is the realization that the U.S. government actively conspired with a large number of major manufacturers – many of whom are not American – for a period stretching over a number of years. This conspiracy occurred without public disclosure, much less public discussion.

And don’t think for a moment that the conspiracy is limited to the United States. News reports say that the Dutch government has used the secret printer codes in Canon products to combat the mass counterfeiting of train tickets.

Taken together, these revelations provide yet another reminder that changing technologies increasingly put individual rights at risk.  No one is suggesting that the U.S. government intends to use the secret printer codes to stamp out dissent. But if vigilance is the eternal price of liberty, a massive government-instigated conspiracy to track the sources of printed materials ought to have us all standing up and taking notice.

October 27, 2005
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