Big Brother Inside

It seems that printer companies have been embedding the model and serial numbers in the output of their color laser printers and color copiers.

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 printed 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.

What bothers me about this isn’t so much that it’s there, but that we weren’t told about it before it was done.  The technology is ripe for abuse.  Sure, it can be used to catch the really stupid counterfeiters, but it could also be used to catch people who have legitimate purposes.  Consider a whistleblower who prints incriminating documents and submits them anonymously.  The affected wrongdoers, if they obtained the documents, could potentially decode the serial numbers and work back to the person who printed them.  This doesn’t necessarily require access to the printer manufacturer’s records, either, given that companies could potentially know the serial numbers of printers assigned to employees (or at a minimum, narrow it down to a certain shared printer).

And what about government abuse of the system?  There appear to be no safeguards built into the law, since this is just something that the printer companies decided to do to be “helpful.”  There is no subpoena requirement, no probable cause, no warrant, no review by a judge.  The company just gives up the information to the government upon request. 

If there really is a legal reason for the government to need to know the information, it won’t hurt them to go through the normal due process procedures and get a warrant.  Even though I don’t trust the judiciary these days to do much more than rubberstamp warrant requests, it would would at least provide a bare minimum of oversight to avoid some abuses.

Update: GeekWithA.45 has some more thoughts on the subject.

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