Laser Printers Contain Government Tracking Codes

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mjs82
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02 Nov 2005, 12:59 pm

Secret Code in Color Printers Lets Government Track You
Tiny Dots Show Where and When You Made Your Print

San Francisco - A research team led by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently broke the code behind tiny tracking dots that some color laser printers secretly hide in every document.

The U.S. Secret Service admitted that the tracking information is part of a deal struck with selected color laser printer manufacturers, ostensibly to identify counterfeiters. However, the nature of the private information encoded in each document was not previously known.

"We've found that the dots from at least one line of printers encode the date and time your document was printed, as well as the serial number of the printer," said EFF Staff Technologist Seth David Schoen.

You can see the dots on color prints from machines made by Xerox, Canon, and other manufacturers (for a list of the printers we investigated so far, see: http://www.eff.org/Privacy/printers/list.php). The dots are yellow, less than one millimeter in diameter, and are typically repeated over each page of a document. In order to see the pattern, you need a blue light, a magnifying glass, or a microscope (for instructions on how to see the dots, see: http://www.eff.org/Privacy/printers/docucolor/).

EFF and its partners began its project to break the printer code with the Xerox DocuColor line. Researchers Schoen, EFF intern Robert Lee, and volunteers Patrick Murphy and Joel Alwen compared dots from test pages sent in by EFF supporters, noting similarities and differences in their arrangement, and then found a simple way to read the pattern.

"So far, we've only broken the code for Xerox DocuColor printers," said Schoen. "But we believe that other models from other manufacturers include the same personally identifiable information in their tracking dots."

You can decode your own Xerox DocuColor prints using EFF's automated program at http://www.eff.org/Privacy/printers/doc ... hp#program.

Xerox previously admitted that it provided these tracking dots to the government, but indicated that only the Secret Service had the ability to read the code. The Secret Service maintains that it only uses the information for criminal counterfeit investigations. However, there are no laws to prevent the government from abusing this information.

"Underground democracy movements that produce political or religious pamphlets and flyers, like the Russian samizdat of the 1980s, will always need the anonymity of simple paper documents, but this technology makes it easier for governments to find dissenters," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Lee Tien. "Even worse, it shows how the government and private industry make backroom deals to weaken our privacy by compromising everyday equipment like printers. The logical next question is: what other deals have been or are being made to ensure that our technology rats on us?"

EFF is still working on cracking the codes from other printers and we need the public's help. Find out how you can make your own test pages to be included in our research at http://www.eff.org/Privacy/printers/wp.php#testsheets.

Contact:

Seth Schoen
Staff Technologist
Electronic Frontier Foundation
[email protected]



Prometheus
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02 Nov 2005, 1:29 pm

THis was already posted as a thread somewhere in here. . .sorry to break it to you


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mjs82
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02 Nov 2005, 11:44 pm

Didn't see the original thread, sorry for the duplication.



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03 Nov 2005, 11:02 am

No problem, but the duplication thing might have been a odd figament of my imagination. . . .my apoligies if that was so


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03 Nov 2005, 4:50 pm

I really don't see what on earth there is for any law-abiding citizen to worry about regarding this technology.
This is very different to, for example, the protests against the introduction of ID cards in Britain, where people do have some valid concerns (e.g., the possibility of, say, a bank refusing you a loan because they look you up on a centralised database and see you've got, say, a medical condition or an outstanding library fine).

Can anyone think of any instances where this technology might be abused to infringe on the rights of anyone who isn't a criminal?
It might be used by suspicious women (or men!) to track their cheating spouses, but I wouldn't begrudge them that.
Can anyone think of any other examples?



adversarial
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03 Nov 2005, 4:58 pm

Fringe political groups are one possible target and since we do not know the limits to which the information could be put, there is even a possiblility of the information and tracking capabilities itself being used to aid the commission of crime.



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04 Nov 2005, 1:52 pm

adversarial wrote:
Fringe political groups are one possible target and since we do not know the limits to which the information could be put, there is even a possiblility of the information and tracking capabilities itself being used to aid the commission of crime.


I don't see why, in a democratic country, any member of any political group would have anything to worry about over this technology. In a democratic country, why would a member of a political group want to keep themselves anonymous?

There might be instances where a person might be a member of an extreme political party and would want to keep it from their employer for fear of being sacked. In this instance they'd just need to prevent themselves being caught in the possession of "incriminating" documents; when and where the documents were produced is immaterial.



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04 Nov 2005, 1:58 pm

Klytus wrote:
I really don't see what on earth there is for any law-abiding citizen to worry about regarding this technology.

That is precisely what I thought when I read this in the paper - surely the only people who have anything to fear from this are people who have something to hide?



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04 Nov 2005, 2:34 pm

Noetic wrote:
Klytus wrote:
I really don't see what on earth there is for any law-abiding citizen to worry about regarding this technology.

That is precisely what I thought when I read this in the paper - surely the only people who have anything to fear from this are people who have something to hide?


That depends on what 'laws' come into beings and what rights get revoked, presumably?

We all have something to hide - most especially those who put new laws onto the statute books.

The charge that anti-counterfeiting strategies are required, due to the quality of the output of colour laser printers is highly suspect. There are apparently laws against reproducing likenesses of legal tender anway.

Of course, if various media pundits and the stoolies in parliament start ringing the 'terrorism' bell, it might be anticipated that people will duly start dribbling as per their conditioning.

Even having said all that, the fact of embedding traceable evidence in printout is surely an indication of the fear in which Government reacts to technology and the use of it by (in this country at least (the UK)), it's 'subjects'?

I remember raking over the old 'The Innocent have nothing to fear' controvesy back in the early 1990's, when it became apparent that technology would evolve new powers of subversion and of surveillance. That argument was set aside however, when it was amply demonstrated that human error, combined with the 'reach' technology can afford, could cause at least as many problems as it attempted to solve.

There is an interesting book published by the Open University called Information Technology & Society. There are probably quite a few books published under that title, so it might be worth making a note of the Publisher as well.



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04 Nov 2005, 4:14 pm

Adversarial, do you (or does anyone else) have a single hypothetical example of HOW this technology could infringe on our human rights? I still haven't heard (or read) any.



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04 Nov 2005, 4:31 pm

Well, there was one case stemming from that book I mentioned above and this was not hypothetical, it was based in fact. It centred around some village gossip in a post office, concerning a middle aged man who was alleged - alleged, mind - to have been up to unpleasantness with little kiddies. A police officer who happened to be in the post office at the time, overheard the tittle-tattle conversation (none of which proved to have any basis in reality), and duly made a note of it. The information was stored on computer, even at that time and the repercussions for that man were quite dreadful.

The article was published at a time in which IT such as we have today was comparatively rare and expensive (I am currently running a Linux box on a spare machine that would have been quite unheard of in a domestic environment 15 years ago; both in terms of hardware specification and complexity of the software running on it), so therefore the article emphasised that some people could place undue 'authority' on even erroneous information that had been stored on and then retrieved from a computer system.

As apocryphal as that story above may sound, it nonetheless bears out the point I made about the possible dangers of unknown (unknowable?) and unconsidered ways in which information could be used, once the expense of collecting it had been gotten out of the way. Remember, it is largely due to the enormous processing capabilities (pattern recognition, data mining, re-purposing of information, etc), that information technology can be used for, as well as the gathering and storage of such information.

To address the issue of whether or not we can trust the government under a democracy; I would say that 90% of the time we probably can. However, what happens if we find ourselves being governed by those who are more ruthless and self-serving than the current bunch of incumbents? Could you imagine how useful certain extremist political organisations would find a vast body of information accumulated by governments on almost every single individual in the country?

I don't mean to sound alarmist, nor to create paranoia where there is no place for it, but I do t hink that people should be more critical and questioning of the government's (or more particularly, certain governmental department's) accumulation of information and their ability to do almost 'realtime' tracking of people's activities.



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04 Nov 2005, 4:32 pm

Klytus wrote:
Adversarial, do you (or does anyone else) have a single hypothetical example of HOW this technology could infringe on our human rights? I still haven't heard (or read) any.

Going on historical evidence, democracy, freedom, or indeed any kind of status quo in a society is only transient. Like ID cards, those printer dot things may not currently represent a threat, but they do put the apparatus in place for a government with dictatorial ambitions to quickly subdue dissent, when necessary. That may seem laughable to some, but don't forget that we're only one major terrorist incident away from martial law at anytime, and that the same people who become politicians in this country are the same ones who'd have been Stalin's commissars, or Hitler's Nazis.



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04 Nov 2005, 4:33 pm

adversarial beat me to it :oops:



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04 Nov 2005, 4:52 pm

Shockingly, I agree with ascan.... 8O

Frankly, all forms of surveillance and storage of personal data which can be used by government to monitor its citizens make me very, very uncomfortable. We have nothing to fear... yet.


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04 Nov 2005, 5:00 pm

Duncvis wrote:
Shockingly, I agree with ascan.... 8O

That's twice in a week! (I think) :D

And you being one of the chosen few, and all that. I'd be careful — in a night of the long knives kind of way — if I were you. :wink:



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04 Nov 2005, 7:30 pm

adversarial wrote:
Well, there was one case stemming from that book I mentioned above and this was not hypothetical, it was based in fact. It centred around some village gossip in a post office, concerning a middle aged man who was alleged - alleged, mind - to have been up to unpleasantness with little kiddies. A police officer who happened to be in the post office at the time, overheard the tittle-tattle conversation (none of which proved to have any basis in reality), and duly made a note of it. The information was stored on computer, even at that time and the repercussions for that man were quite dreadful.


Maybe I didn't make myself clear. I was talking about the "dots on laser printouts" thing, which was the main subject of the article at the beginning of this thread.

The example you've given above refers to a different technology. Your example seems to highlight the problems with centralised databases (which I acknowledge), although even that is not clear from the account you've given. Would the repercussions for the man in question have been any less dreadful if the information had been stored on paper in a police file. If not, then should we be worried about the use of pencil and paper?

Certain technological breakthroughs do have unfortunate implications for our privacy, but I think that those that can only be used for decent purposes (e.g., catching criminals) should be used, and I don't think "but what are they going to come up with next?" is a good enough argument against.
I still haven't come across one example of the potential dangers of this "Secret Code In Colour Printers".



Last edited by Klytus on 05 Nov 2005, 4:44 pm, edited 2 times in total.