Last year, PC World magazine revealed that color laser
printers scattered tiny yellow dots over every printed page. These
yellow dots are visible only under blue light, and an unnamed senior
researcher at Xerox Corp. explained that they are used by law-enforcement
to prevent counterfeiting.
Printing invisible dots to distinguish real currency from forgeries
made for a mildly interesting story, and not much more came of it
until October 18th of this year when the Electronic Frontier Foundation
announced that encoded within the dot-patterns are the printer's
serial number and the date on which the printout was made. The EFF
determined that color printers and copiers from Brother, Canon,
Dell, Epson, Aculaser, Konika/Minolta, Kyocera, Lanier, Ricoh, Savin, Tektronix
and Xerox encode this information on all printouts and that have
been doing so for about a decade.
That got people's attention.
Printing invisible dots to prevent counterfeiting is one thing,
but clandestinely rolling out a technology that enables the government
to track any printed document back to its source was viewed as an
unwarranted invasion of privacy. A policy that echoed of the old
Soviet Union practice of maintaining a collection of sample typewriter
printouts to crack down on Samizdat dissidents.
In response to the questions, Xerox and Hewlett Packard issued
statements explaining only that the hidden codes were the result
of cooperation between manufacturers, government agencies and "a
consortium of banks". They have steadfastly refused to provide
any additional details. Specifically, they have refused to comment
on what economic incentives these government agencies used to gain
The US Secret Service, which is the agency responsible for tracking
down counterfeiters, has been similarly tight-lipped not only about the
nature of their arrangements with manufacturers, but also on how
this information is being used. Hypothetical situations have been
offered as to how this technology could be useful in tracking down
counterfeiters, kidnappers and (of course) terrorists, but no one
has been able to come up with a single example of these dots actually
being used in this way.
More troubling still, the program seems to have no outside oversight,
there are no clear legal restrictions as to what the Secret Service
can do with this information, and no information on which other
government agencies and private entities have access the data.
In fact, US Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren sounded positively
Orwellian when he tried to allay the fears of privacy conscious
citizens. "You only have to worry about it identifying you
if you have partaken in illegal activity."
Great, the only people who want privacy are those with something