Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Is Your Printer Spying On You?

"Someone in the government has managed to have
a lot of influence in printing technology... ."
-- Seth Schoen,
Electronic Frontier Foundation

The Washington Post reports today that "nearly every major printer manufacturer" over the last ten years has secretly encoded color printers with microscopic dots that enable 'sleuths' to track any printed page back to the individual machine source.
"Yesterday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco consumer privacy group, said it had cracked the code used in a widely used line of Xerox printers, an invisible bar code of sorts that contains the serial number of the printer as well as the date and time a document was printed.

With the Xerox printers, the information appears as a pattern of yellow dots, each only a millimeter wide and visible only with a magnifying glass and a blue light. The EFF said it has identified similar coding on pages printed from nearly every major printer manufacturer, including Hewlett-Packard Co., though its team has so far cracked the codes for only one type of Xerox printer."
A spokesman for Xerox confirmed EFF's information. He told the Post the secret encoding "was part of a cooperation with government agencies, competing manufacturers and a 'consortium of banks' to defeat counterfeiting."

Consumer privacy advocates at EFF, however, counter that people under the rule of "repressive governments or those who have a legitimate need for privacy" could be threatened by the secret encoding program. One pointed out that "after months collecting samples from printers around the world" it took an intern only "about a week" to break the code.

If you own a Xerox color printer, you can go to a special section on the EFF web site to test your machine. Other consumers are being invited to help EFF as it continues to research other printers. Go to this EFF page for instructions on how to make and send to EFF a test page for free analysis.

So far as it appears, black and white printers are unaffected.

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