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Monday, November 22, 2004

Your laser printer is sending hardcopy to Big Brother

It used to be standard policy in the Soviet Union that if you - whether as a private individual or one of the few small businesses allowed during perestroika - wanted to purchase anything that produced printed material, the party wouldn't let you play with it right out of the box. Instead you first had to take your typewriter, printer, fax machine or copier down to the local KGB office where you would "register" it with the state: by submitting typewritten or printed samples created with the machine. The samples would be kept on file with the KGB so they would have a unique "fingerprint" of your particular device.

If you were ever suspected of circulating any "subversive literature" around, the offending leaflet could be compared to the samples of your machine. If they matched... well, it usually meant you'd won an express ticket straight to beautiful Dzerzhinsky Square in downtown Moscow, of which your hosts made sure that you'd get to tour "the basement". Hey, beats what would happen if you were found with an unregistered printing machine: those were usually dealt with by summary execution.

I mention all of this 'cuz since America is now well into the phase where we've gone beyond laughing at the Soviets and are now determined to actively imitate them, this next story is totally apropos. But think of the bright side: at least this way you don't have to burn gas money trudging your new printer down to the CIA... not when they've got its serial number tagged with the credit card that you bought it with. Convenient, no? Awright, just read this from PC World via Yahoo!...

Government Uses Color Laser Printer Technology to Track Documents

Mon Nov 22, 4:00 AM ET
Jason Tuohey, Medill News Service

WASHINGTON--Next time you make a printout from your color laser printer, shine an LED flashlight beam on it and examine it closely with a magnifying glass. You might be able to see the small, scattered yellow dots printer there that could be used to trace the document back to you.

According to experts, several printer companies quietly encode the serial number and the manufacturing code of their color laser printers and color copiers on every document those machines produce. Governments, including the United States, already use the hidden markings to track counterfeiters.

Peter Crean, a senior research fellow at Xerox, says his company's laser printers, copiers and multifunction workstations, such as its WorkCentre Pro series, put the "serial number of each machine coded in little yellow dots" in every printout. The millimeter-sized dots appear about every inch on a page, nestled within the printed words and margins.

"It's a trail back to you, like a license plate," Crean says.

The dots' minuscule size, covering less than one-thousandth of the page, along with their color combination of yellow on white, makes them invisible to the naked eye, Crean says. One way to determine if your color laser is applying this tracking process is to shine a blue LED light--say, from a keychain laser flashlight--on your page and use a magnifier.


If the practice disturbs you, don't bother trying to disable the encoding mechanism--you'll probably just break your printer.

Crean describes the device as a chip located "way in the machine, right near the laser" that embeds the dots when the document "is about 20 billionths of a second" from printing.

"Standard mischief won't get you around it," Crean adds.

Neither Crean nor Pagano has an estimate of how many laser printers, copiers, and multifunction devices track documents, but they say that the practice is commonplace among major printer companies.

"The industry absolutely has been extraordinarily helpful [to law enforcement]," Pagano says.

According to Pagano, counterfeiting cases are brought to the Secret Service, which checks the documents, determines the brand and serial number of the printer, and contacts the company. Some, like Xerox, have a customer database, and they share the information with the government.

Crean says Xerox and the government have a good relationship. "The U.S. government had been on board all along--they would actually come out to our labs," Crean says.


For the rest of the story punch here.

So... if we're not just following the same procedure that the Soviets used in controlling the spread of printed material, but have instead improved upon it, that's not necessarily a good thing for the people of this country, right?



Anonymous said...

Hi there,

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