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Printer dots and tin-foil hattery — or not

Government Tracking You with Secret Code in Color Printers. I try to stay away from hard-to-prove tin-foil hattery like UFOs and the theory that Dick Cheney has a heart and Chimpy a brain, but this one you wish wasn’t possible, and more disturbing, already in place.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which watches out for privacy matters in the digital realm as our Patriot Act-obsessed Administration strips our rights way, the major printer manufacturers have been co-opted.

I guess the only good news about this is most folks don’t have color laser printers yet.

The US government has succeeded in persuading some color laser printer manufacturers to encode each page with identifying information. That means that without your knowledge or consent, an act you assume is private could become public.

A research team led by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently broke the code behind tiny tracking dots that some color laser printers secretly hide in every document.

The U.S. Secret Service admitted that the tracking information is part of a deal struck with selected color laser printer manufacturers, ostensibly to identify counterfeiters. However, the nature of the private information encoded in each document was not previously known.

“We’ve found that the dots from at least one line of printers encode the date and time your document was printed, as well as the serial number of the printer,” said EFF Staff Technologist Seth David Schoen.

You can see the dots on color prints from machines made by Xerox, Canon, and other manufacturers (for a list of the printers we investigated so far, see: The dots are yellow, less than one millimeter in diameter, and are typically repeated over each page of a document. In order to see the pattern, you need a blue light, a magnifying glass, or a microscope (for instructions on how to see the dots, see:

The list of color lasers that do and do not have the tracking dots is here.

Thanks to KittenSnu for the pointer

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding