PRINTERS AND PRIVACY
PRINTERS AND PRIVACY
2005-11-18 at 10:41:00 am #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.
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
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
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.
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.
is the U.S. alone; PC Magazine reported in a separate article that the
Dutch government uses a similar identification system.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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:
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
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