PRIVACY WORRIES?…DON’T PRINT IN COLOR !
PRIVACY WORRIES?…DON’T PRINT IN COLOR !
2005-11-08 at 11:38:00 am #14538
Privacy worries? Don’t print in color
You’ve got to love black-and-white laser printers. You can get a good one for $150 or so, and each toner cartridge cranks out thousands of pages before you need a refill. Best of all, they don’t spy on you.
You can’t say the same about color laser printers, as we learned last week. Actually, we should have learned it nearly a year ago. That’s when PC World magazine reported that makers of color laser printers, in cooperation with law enforcement agencies, have programmed their machines to print tiny yellow dots on every printed document. These dots are almost invisible under normal conditions, but can be spotted by anyone with a magnifier and the right sort of lighting.
Most of us ignored the news, but not the civil libertarians at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. The group asked its members to mail in documents generated by dozens of color laser printers. They got hundreds of submissions run off on printers made by a variety of manufacturers — Minolta, Canon, Hewlett-Packard and Xerox, among others.
Last week, the foundation announced it had cracked the code on a document generated by a Xerox printer. By reading the yellow dots, staff members were able to identify the serial number of the very machine that had produced the printout.
No big deal, unless you’re a counterfeiter. ”Ten years ago, 1 percent of counterfeit currency was produced by copiers and printers; now it’s 56 percent,” said Eric Zahren, spokesman for the US Secret Service, the government agency that battles the funny-money trade. So the Secret Service and other security agencies persuaded printer makers to embed subtle markers into their machines. And not just printers, said Edward Delp, a professor of electrical engineering at Purdue University. ”Color copiers have done this for a long time,” said Delp.
As a result, police can play spot-the-dots with pieces of phony currency, then use sales records to trace the machine and its owner.
Of course, the same technique can be used to identify anything else from the printer. But Zahren says privacy-conscious citizens have nothing to fear. ”You only have to worry about it identifying you if you have partaken in illegal activity,” he said.
Famous last words? Maybe not. Why would cops bother to inspect the billions of pages printed every day, just to figure out which printer produced them? It might be worthwhile to study anonymous ransom notes or death threats. But usually it’s obvious where a document came from; the cops needn’t bother looking for subtle yellow dots.
Then again, few of us live in countries with a low regard for human rights. Pity the poor Cuban worshiper at a secret church who cranks out a few religious tracts on the office laser printer. Let one of those tracts fall into an informant’s hands, and the cops will know exactly where to find him.
”These printers are being sold all over the world,” said Seth Schoen, staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. No doubt the dictators will use the codes for their intended purpose, but only a fool would expect it to stop there. Schoen admitted the dots pose little threat to the privacy of Americans. But, he added, ”If I were in China, for example, it might be a real problem.”
It’s enough to make you wonder how many more of our gadgets are keeping an eye on us. Cellphones come to mind. A federal regulation, issued for our own good, requires cell phone systems to add features that can locate a phone to within a few yards. That way, when you dial 911 from a burning building, the firefighters can find you before the flames do.
But the same technology can also let the police track your every move. The locator software can be activated without any warning, converting any cheap cellphone into a homing beacon. Just the thing for keeping somebody under constant surveillance.
You’d hope the police would need a warrant for this kind of snooping. Warrants require the cops to show a judge some evidence the target of the surveillance has committed a crime. But the US Justice Department has instead relied on subpoenas. A judge will issue one of these if the police merely claim that it might produce information that will help crack a case. Federal courts have routinely granted such subpoenas.
But in August, a federal magistrate, James Orenstein, ruled that the collection of electronic location data from a cellphone is little different from a wiretap. For that, you need a full-fledged wiretap warrant, he said. The Justice Department has scoffed at Orenstein’s argument and is appealing, with good reason. The federal courts approved just 730 wiretap warrants last year, with state governments permitting another 1,000 or so. So if Orenstein prevails, a cop will need a lot more than a hunch before spying on our cellphones.
Still, it’s worth at least a little worry. In her new book ”Spychips,” privacy activist Katherine Albrecht warns of efforts to embed digital trackers into every item we buy. Perhaps we should worry more about all the tracking devices we already own — the cellphones with locator chips, the unique digital codes broadcast by every wireless Internet router, and of course the paper scrolling out of your color laser printer, with your signature on every page, like it or not.