Tangled Webs

   Connecting the Dots
Issue 10.3
Dec 27, 2005

I See Spots

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 their compliance.

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 to hide.

See Spot Run

Now that the US government, and presumably all governments, can track printed documents back to the person who printed or copied them, privacy rights have been compromised to the point of being meaningless. Far from there being widespread outcry over this program, however, the issue dropped out of the news in a matter of weeks, and the program continues as a fait accompli.

The entire program came into being without legislation, public debate or even public disclosure of how much of our taxpayer funds these companies received for helping our government spy on us.

We've come a long way since Thomas Jefferson was president.

Perhaps the biggest news here is the fact that this is not news. Sadly, the federal government and private industry have been making these kinds of backroom technology deals for years. IP telephony service providers must ensure that all calls can be efficiently wiretapped, and a few years ago it was revealed that all Microsoft Office documents secretly encoded information about their author and the computer on which they were created.

Federal regulations now require US cell phones to contain a locater that can be activated to pinpoint your location within a few yards. The official rationale is that these chips can help firefighters and police locate 911 callers who can't explain where they are. Again, however, there is no significant legislative or judicial oversight, and police are free to activate the locater without a 911 call or a warrant.

We know that our printers, cell phones and office software have been compromised, and since most of these deals happen in secret it's hard to say what other of our possessions are spying on us. Of course, we are not exactly demanding to be told. It seems the only time we have significant public debate over this kind of spying technology is when two corporate interests are opposed.

When Hollywood demanded that all televisions contain chips that tell them which viewers are watching which programs and that all PCs contain technology to prevent users from coping music and DVDs, consumer electronics and computer makers balked. Legislators are now working to find a compromise that will keep all industries happy. Unfortunately, our satisfaction with the final outcome is a minor concern. Our job is simply to pay for it all.

Run Spot. Run!

Now, at this point writers are expected to choose one of two paths. We must either decry this technology as a jackbooted step in the march towards a police state, or we must ridicule those making such claims as paranoid conspiracy theorists. While both paths are equally valid, I think the most important aspect of this technology is how few people know or care about it.

These yellow spy-dots are equally useful in cracking down on counterfeiters and cracking down on those who oppose government policy. The fact is, however, that the technology does not seem to have ever been put to either use, and the odds of this technology ever having a direct impact on most readers of this column are extraordinarily slight. There is no direct downside for us, so we shrug our shoulders and turn our attention to the next celebrity sex scandal.

And that's the problem.

At its inception, liberal democracy held that a government had no inherent right to exist; that it existed only by the consent of those it governed. Government's sole purpose was to protect and promote the well being those it served. Likewise, until about 150 years ago, corporations were closely regulated organizations with limited-time, limited-scope charters that were required to demonstrate that they advanced a specific public good.

We created both our government and the corporation with the intent that they would serve us and originally demanded that they justify their policies and actions in terms of what specific benefit those policies delivered to us.

Technology, however, has allowed things to become reversed. We cannot see the spy chips in or printers, phones, cars and televisions, so they do not intrude on our lives. We do not hear legislative debate or oversight over these issues because they are the result of "Voluntary cooperation" between industry and government.

The tragedy is not that we are heading for a police state, but that we citizens have been reduced to a role of quietly supporting our new masters; the very institutions we created to be our servants.

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