*NEWS*PRIVACY WORRIES?DON’T PRINT COLOR !
*NEWS*PRIVACY WORRIES?DON’T PRINT COLOR !
2005-11-08 at 11:39:00 am #14539
Privacy worries? Don’t print in color
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.