Very interesting article.

What do you guys and gals think of this? What's happening to everyone's privacy?

The PC Guy: Printer worries

Saturday, October 29, 2005


As if we don't have enough worries about spies and viruses swimming around our computers, we recently learned that some of our printers are inserting codes into our documents without our knowledge.

A consumer privacy group reported last week that Dell, Xerox, Hewlett-Packard Co. and others have quietly incorporated a mechanism on many of their color laser printers that transmits an ID code on every page. The tiny yellow dots are invisible to the naked eye, viewable only under special lighting.

It is all part of a secret agreement with the U.S. Secret Service to combat counterfeiters.

Well, no one can dispute those are good intentions. The clarity of the latest generation of laser printers is, for better or worse, so good that credible reproductions of virtually any kind of document can be made easily. Legal or illegal. We all lose when criminals use printers for forgeries.

But our concern - and that of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which released the report - is twofold:

One, efforts to fight crime often come with double-edged swords. The same mechanism designed to entrap the bad guys also may expose the identity of honest citizens from whistle-blowers trying to reveal wrongdoing to activists urging political change through what they believe are anonymous fliers.

Depending on the political climate, one never knows when federal or local police agencies may ease restrictions on snooping on citizens. We'd like to think only bad guys will be entrapped by this breach of privacy: counterfeiters, kidnappers, extortionists.

But history shows aggressive crime-fighting techniques sometimes ensnare innocent folks. (Consider the thousands of pages of released FBI files on '60s anti-war protesters that revealed broad misuse of surveillance and massive violations of civil liberties.)

Also, the secrecy with which this was undertaken does little to enhance consumer confidence in the computer industry, in this case printer manufacturers who would hide such details from them.

Novice scam artists may well be caught through these hidden codes, but major counterfeiter rings likely already know of the codes and are taking steps to circumvent them. (In fact, PC World magazine reported on the secret codes more than a year ago, to little fanfare.)

The privacy of innocent consumers who use documents anonymously out of fear of repercussion has been compromised by these codes. What other data - personal, perhaps - will be revealed in future anti-crime mechanisms?

Does the urgency of combating crime outweigh consumers' right to know of hidden security codes on the documents they print? Or the e-mail they send? How do you feel about this? Send me your thoughts, and we'll discuss this further in an upcoming column.

For a list of affected printers and for more information on the Electronic Frontier Foundation, visit