PRINTERS AND PRIVACY

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PRINTERS AND PRIVACY

 user 2005-11-18 at 10:41:00 am Views: 72
  • #13092

    Printers and Privacy
    Why Government-Sponsored Printer Identification Raises Serious Privacy Concerns
    governments now might be able to track us by using data generated by our cell phones.
    This
    longstanding tracking method – which I will call “printer
    identification” — may be just as dangerous to privacy as more
    newfangled technologies. Below, I discuss safeguards that can minimize
    privacy concerns.
    It is important to remember, moreover, that not
    only privacy, but also First Amendment concerns play a role here: A
    large proportion of the papers that go through our printers count as
    First Amendment-protected speech. And we need to remember that, in a
    sense, laser printers are the modern form of the printing press.
    Printer Identification: Why It Exists and How It Works
    The
    Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) noted in a report last month that
    a certain model of Xerox color laser printer generates a tiny series of
    dots – invisible to the naked eye — on all printed pages. The source
    of the dots is a chip embedded within the printer – one that, it seems,
    cannot be removed by the user without breaking the machine.
    Xerox is
    not alone: As a 2004 article in PC Magazine revealed, such
    identification has been in place in many manufacturers’ (including
    Canon’s) color printers for nearly two decades, pursuant to a
    government-requested program devised by the U.S. Secret Service.
    Nor
    is the U.S. alone; PC Magazine reported in a separate article that the
    Dutch government uses a similar identification system.
    With the
    right illumination and magnification – the EFF suggests “a blue LED
    light–say, from a key chain laser flashlight” and a magnifying glass,
    these dots can be seen.
    Once decoded (and EFF offers free software that will do just that), the dots contain
    a unique serial number for the printer, and also indicate the time and date of the printout.
    The
    serial number can then be matched up with the company’s customer
    records to identify the owner of the printer. Such identifying
    information exists because distributors often record the name of the
    purchaser, or a purchaser may register his purchase as part of a
    warranty registration program. If you buy a printer with a credit or
    debit card (which is often the case), the distributor or sales agent
    will have a record of the purchase.
    The purpose of the program is to
    prevent counterfeiting. That’s certainly a worthy aim, and high-end
    color laser printers may be among counterfeiters’ favorite tools.
    But the government can – and should – both pursue this aim, and protect privacy at the same time.
    Privacy and Free Speech Safeguards Are Essential
    When
    companies cooperate with law enforcement, they become agents of the
    state. The government should have told the public about this program
    when it began.
    And now that the program has been revealed, it ought
    to more fully explain the extent to which printer tracking is used and
    for what purpose. Can any government agency access this information,
    for any reason – even when counterfeiting is plainly not an issue
    Currently,
    no law restricts this information to counterfeiting investigations
    alone. In practice, according to Xerox, the Secret Service has only
    requested information from the company when counterfeiting has been
    suspected – but there is no guarantee that this will always be the case.
    And
    what about foreign governments? Can this information be shared with
    them? Imagine a foreign student studying in the U.S., who anonymously
    protests his government’s actions and tries to get attention for them
    here. Could the student be tracked down and punished when he returns
    home because the U.S. government provided his government with
    information allowing them to identify documents as having come from his
    printer?
    Finally, what about non-government entities? What if, for
    instance, litigants want to employ the dots to aid the authentication
    of documents, or establish an evidentiary timeline?
    According to the
    EFF, there is also no law “regulating the distribution or reuse of
    information obtained through the use of marking technologies and
    customer databases. “
    In the future, legislation may be appropriate
    to regulate how and when companies must divulge customer information to
    the government; what notice to the customer is appropropriate when they
    do so; and what can happen to the information, once divulged -
    including which governments, and private persons, can and cannot get
    their hands on it. Such legislation would apply in these, and also many
    other, circumstances.
    It appears that with respect to the government
    printer identification program, rather than going through typical
    subpoena processes, the government simply asked the companies to
    cooperate, which included providing customer information.
    It thus
    avoided the kind of contentious disputes that have happened, more
    recently, when the government has sought customer information from
    Internet Service Providers (ISPs)–or when it tried to get PC
    manufacturers to create unique identifiers for each computer, which
    triggered a tremendous public outcry.
    Americans care about their
    privacy. The answer surely shouldn’t be for the government to act
    secretly, so we don’t know it’s being infringed.
    Rather, it should
    be that the government gives us notice of privacy-infringing programs,
    and makes sure that they contain safeguards that will protects our
    rights to live privately and speak freely.
    Congress must act toward
    this end, as soon as possible – stepping in to prohibit the government
    from using printer identification information in a way that poses a
    threat to our privacy or which chills our speech.
    Without Safeguards, We May Experience a Chilling Effect on Speech
    Without
    notice and accountability with respect to printer monitoring (and
    similar surveillance technologies), there may be a chilling effect, for
    members of the public will rightly be fearful of when and how the
    government might monitor printing and discourse. They thus may feel
    they cannot conduct private life, and private discussions, with the
    freedom that they otherwise would.
    Imagine the kinds of speech that might be chilled or deterred:
    Individuals
    often use color laser printers to create political protest signs,
    organize legal protest activities. The right to speak encompasses a
    right to associate with like-minded others. What if membership lists
    are printed on a laser printer, and then faxed? The government could
    easily find out who sent what, and when.
    In some cases, the
    individuals who engage in this kind of speech may prefer to remain
    anonymous. And the Supreme Court has indicated that the right to speak
    includes the right to speak anonymously, in some situations such as
    political pamphleteering.
    Yet we hardly remain anonymous when even
    our printers are spying on us, at the very moment our thoughts hit the
    paper, and are ready to be distributed, on paper, to the world