Thursday, July 28, 2005
Big Brother Inside Your Laser Printer 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Psst. Did you know the Gubmint embeds secret computer chips in many laser printers, so authorities can track down exactly which printer a document came from?

No, really:
WASHINGTON--Next time you make a printout from your color laser printer, shine an LED flashlight beam on it and examine it closely with a magnifying glass. You might be able to see the small, scattered yellow dots printed there that could be used to trace the document back to you.

According to experts, several printer companies quietly encode the serial number and the manufacturing code of their color laser printers and color copiers on every document those machines produce. Governments, including the United States, already use the hidden markings to track counterfeiters.

Peter Crean, a senior research fellow at Xerox, says his company's laser printers, copiers and multifunction workstations, such as its WorkCentre Pro series, put the "serial number of each machine coded in little yellow dots" in every printout. The millimeter-sized dots appear about every inch on a page, nestled within the printed words and margins.

"It's a trail back to you, like a license plate," Crean says. [keep reading article in PC World]
The funny thing is, if we heard about the government secretly implanting consumer products with tracking devices in a nation like China, Cuba, or the former Soviet Union, we'd chalk it up to "normal" totalitarian interference. When it's done in the U.S., we rationalize it as an "anti-terrorism measure" or a "security precaution."

Personally, I wouldn't find this story half as sinister if the coding were 'above board': if consumers knew that each printer had a unique signature or embedded serial number that identified each machine's output. Authorities would argue that this secrecy is necessary to prevent subversion of the coding precaution, but I think any counterfeiter or terrorist worth their salt would discover the presence of these mechanisms in one way or another. After all, if the secret encoding is so "secret," why are printer manufacturers and the Secret Service talking to PC World about its existence?