Thursday, January 06, 2005

Always read the “fine print”?

You may not be aware, but if you’re using a colour laser printer, its privacy-violating subliminal encoding technology could be leaving a paper trail in more ways than you can imagine.

Here’s how it works: A microchip located near the laser beam embeds a series of minuscule yellow dots that, when decoded, reveal the serial number of the printer that the document was printed on. Once this information is gathered, authorities can contact the manufacturer and some will release the name of the printer owner to law enforcement agencies. Due to the small size and colour of the dots as well as their strategic placement, they are invisible to the naked eye.

The technology, pioneered by Xerox about 20 years ago to assuage fears that its colour copiers could be used to counterfeit dollar bills, has long been adopted by major printer manufacturers. Needless to say, this gives one pause to wonder how many other devices have similar “features” in them.

It’s not so much that most users would have an issue with this technology being in place. According to a counterfeiting specialist with the US Secret Service, “the only time any information is gained from these documents is purely in [the case of] a criminal act”. That, it seems to me, is almost like a case of presumed guilty unless proven otherwise.

Furthermore, I think the issue here is privacy, not criminality. There’s no reason anything I print out – even if it’s just email jokes sent by well-meaning friends – should have a serial number embedded that’s traceable to me. And the crux of the problem is that printer companies have not been required to notify customers of this feature.

Solution for now: Do not use a colour laser printer. Use an inkjet printer.


Update: Go to www.eff.org/Privacy/printers/ for a list of double-dealing devices.

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