Big brother is watching (what you print)


November 24, 2004, 10:52 PM

Government Uses Color Laser Printer Technology to Track Documents

Mon Nov 22, 4:00 AM ET

Technology - PC World

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

"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

Crime Fighting vs. Privacy

Laser-printing technology makes it incredibly easy to counterfeit money and documents,
and Crean says the dots, in use in some printers for decades, allow law enforcement to
identify and track down counterfeiters.

However, they could also be employed to track a document back to any person or
business that printed it. Although the technology has existed for a long time, printer
companies have not been required to notify customers of the feature.

Lorelei Pagano, a counterfeiting specialist with the U.S. Secret Service, stresses that the
government uses the embedded serial numbers only when alerted to a forgery. "The
only time any information is gained from these documents is purely in [the case of] a
criminal act," she says.

John Morris, a lawyer for The Center for Democracy and Technology, says, "That type of
assurance doesn't really assure me at all, unless there's some type of statute." He adds,
"At a bare minimum, there needs to be a notice to consumers."

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

"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

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.

Unlike ink jet printers, laser printers, fax machines, and copiers fire a laser through a
mirror and series of lenses to embed the document or image on a page. Such devices
range from a little over $100 to more than $1000, and are designed for both home and

Crean says Xerox pioneered this technology about 20 years ago, to assuage fears that
their color copiers could easily be used to counterfeit bills.

"We developed the first (encoding mechanism) in house because several countries had
expressed concern about allowing us to sell the printers in their country," Crean says.

Since then, he says, many other companies have adopted the practice.

The United States is not the only country teaming with private industry to fight
counterfeiters. A recent article points to the Dutch government as using similar
anticounterfeiting methods, and cites Canon as a company with encoding technology.
Canon USA declined to comment.

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November 24, 2004, 11:06 PM
Deleted by jimpeel

November 24, 2004, 11:06 PM

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