Is your printer spying on you?

July 20, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

pict0209.jpgWell, this was probably something I shouldn’t have stumbled onto – printers that spy on you. Regular ThinkingShift readers would be well aware of my slight paranoia over CCTV/public webcams, invasion of privacy, the surveillance society and so on. As part of my research into a future (no doubt very long) post, I came across an article from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) about how some colour laser printers contain “invisible yellow spy dots” – a hidden code that silently reveals information such as the serial number of the printer, date and time printed, make and model of the printer. In other words, you and your printer can be tracked and identified via a secret “fingerprint”. Apparently, the US Secret Service struck a deal with some printer manufacturers to add tracking information to printed matter. Some manufacturers named by EFF were: Brother, Canon, Dell, Epson Aculaser, Konika/Minolta, Kyocera, Lanier, Ricoh, Savin, Tektronix and Xerox.

Almost on the verge of hyperventilation when learning about this and wondering about the printers in the office I work in (Government organisation), in came a post from Boing Boing, which caused further hysteria. Apparently, if you are bold enough to ask the manufacturer of your printer to stop spying on you, “they respond by ratting you out to the Secret Service (in the US) as a dangerous subversive, and a few days later, the SS will show up and ask you why you care about your privacy”.

But Seeing Yellow (out of MIT) is planning to launch a spirited campaign against printer manufacturers by overwhelming them with customer complaints. Apparently, some mention the existence of the tracking dots in their documentation, whilst others don’t. The ‘spy dots’ can be seen under bright blue light (LED) or through a microscope and the particular pattern of the dots identifies which printer was used to print a particular document.

This is an example of the spy dots from the EFF site, which will give you more information about printers and spy dots. And here is an EFF research paper, with links to white papers and articles.

The official word is that the spy dots were coded to help track counterfeiters but in today’s climate of mistrust and fear, it takes little imagination to see this as a tool for government surveillance.


Entry filed under: Privacy, Surveillance society.

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