Skip to comments.Review: Secret codes in printers may allow government tracking
Posted on 10/25/2005 5:43:20 PM PDT by Momaw Nadon
Tiny dots produced by some laser printers are a secret code that can allow the government to track down counterfeiters, a new study concludes, raising the hackles of privacy advocates.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation said its researchers recently broke the code behind the tiny tracking dots and said the US Secret Service confirmed that the tracking is part of a deal struck with selected color laser printer manufacturers to identify counterfeiters.
"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 researcher Seth Schoen.
EFF said the yellow dots are less than one millimeter in diameter and can be seen only with a blue light, magnifying glass or microscope.
Lorie Lewis, a spokeswoman at the Secret Service, declined to confirm the report directly but acknowledged that the agency "has worked together with other government agencies and industry on preventive technological countermeasures designed to discourage the illegal use of printers and copiers in the production of counterfeit currency."
Lewis said she could not elaborate on these measures but said they were "specific and limited to the reproduction of currency" and that the action "in no way tracks or measures the use of a personal computer's hardware or software."
EFF, a group promoting privacy, free speech and technological innovation, said the news has troubling implications for privacy even if the aim is to stop counterfeiting.
EFF spokeswoman Rebecca Jeschke said the same information could be used by governments to track down dissidents.
"Internationally, there are governments who would be very interested in what dissidents have to say and in tracking dissidents," she said.
Jeschke added that although the deal appeared to be with the US government, the fact that it was relatively easy to break the code would mean other governments could use the same codes for other purposes.
EFF broke a code in a Xerox DocuColor printer and identified other codes in printers from Canon, Brother, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Epson and other makers. And they noted that the codes are not limited to printers sold in the United States.
"We had test pages from Europe, and they do have the same codes on them," Jeschke said.
Xerox spokesman Bill McKee said the company would not comment on specific technology "for security reasons."
"Xerox does not routinely share any information about its customers," he said. "We, like any manufacturer, assist investigating agencies, when asked."
Beth Givens of the California-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse said the report was troubling,
"It begs the question about what other kinds of secret tracking mechanisms are out there," she said.
Givens said the system could threaten a basic right to remain anonymous.
"The right to leaflet goes all the way back to the birth of this country," she said.
"If you print something on a color printer, you're no longer anonymous."
"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 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?"
Pretty crafty! ;~)
Foil hat alert!
been posted and discussed....
Nothing wrong with this. It was probably implimented to combat forging currency and can be used for other things such as ransom requests and threatening letters.
Nothing 'Foil Hat' about this. It's as true as the serial number on a firearm. If you don't believe it then perhaps you need a Dunce Hat.
" Electronic Frontier Foundation"
Up in arms about an attempt to prevent counterfeiting. The same group that was silent and unresponsive when, earlier this year, it looked like the FCC was going to create regulations, in response to a Supreme Court order, to restrict political free speech on the Internet.
(By the way, I never did hear about the resolution of the FCC situation, if there was any.)
Putting on Dunce Hat..... ;D
as in many other cases,the potential problem is not with the technology,but with the motives of the user. (Big Brother?)
No worries. I have one for every day of the week, they vary in size lol
I really needed one today... there IS such a thing as asking a stupid question and boy did I find one....
Oh yeah? Then how come we haven't caught OBL? Is it because he's working for us? You give the gov't too much credit.
Well you can't have any of my Dunce Hats because I need them all for myself!
Ha Ha on you!
Anyone tried to apply this to the Rather Documents yet?
Maybe I'm wrong but I think the only published copies of the Rather documents are the faxed copies. Those tiny dots would never show up on a document that was faxed. Microscopic yellow dots wouldn't show up on a copied document either.
I've wondered if the US hasn't done the same thing with Microsoft's Windows software.
The Feds: "Bill, if you put in secret back doors in your software we'll let you off easy on our big lawsuit".
This technology is not news. It's been open source on the bell-labs.com website for about 5 years. Every color laser printer in the world has this technology, unless someone pieced one together - but you'd need a Ph.D. in applied math to figure out how to build one.
So, if they can track all my funny money, can they also track my crackpot letters to the NY Times too?
If the details of the code are published, I would think it might be interesting if some hacker found out the serial number of a politician's printer and made use of that information.
Actually, there is this little item called a GUID (Globally Unique Identifier) used liberally throughout Windows. They are generated on the fly and are supposedly unique to a computer because one of the pieces of data used to create it is the computer's hardware MAC address (i.e., a unique identifier for your ethernet card). Not sure what it uses if there is no ethernet card...
These GUIDs are also passed around between systems, applications, clients, servers, etc., and have (again supposedly) been used to track down a few hackers and virus writers.
Thanks for taking over. Why was he suspended?
I think you're righth. IF the contrast is high enough, they may create a dot pattern on the faxed document - but even then you'd have to sort that out of the background dirt.
Id ask him when he gets back. I dont really know the details.
Glad you were willing to take over. Freepatriot32 was pretty dilligent about keeping the threads coming. i've seen you on forum, you should be an adequate replacement. Best to you.
You can reinsert your colour cartridge later.
Possible. Not impossible. Not bloody likely.
If you pay cash for the printer and don't register it with the manufacturer, do you figure the software can contact the manufacturer anyway in order to give them your internet address and computer serial number?
So, create your (poison-pen letter, scandalous commentary, deliberate and well-deserved insults, whatever) on an old box (c. 1998, running Win95 or even DOS), then send it via 8-bit faxmodem, and tell the PC police to go whistle. Graphics are difficult w/this schema, but doable if you're quite dedicated.
Oh, yes, almost forgot. Route the transmission through a blind turnaround circuit (bit of hardware you can attach to any Western Electric deskset) at some other address, and you've no worries.
Mark you, I've no interest in counterfeiting at all, merely in occasionally neatly gutting political filth using that well-known filet knife, the printed word. Nor have I any attention of getting any grief from said filth about doing so.
They're on their way to your door right now. Better get dressed. You don't want to do the perp walk in your underwear.
ROFL. I knew they were watching me.
Actually I'm wearing some new, rather stylish tinfoil PJ's and I'm watching the market online.