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Is your printer spying on you?

Tech tracking spooks EFF

Secret codes enbedded into pages printed by some colour laser printers pose a risk to personal privacy, according to the Electronic Frontier Fundation. The US privacy group warns the approach - ostensibly only designed to identify counterfeiters - has become a tool for government surveillance, unchecked by laws to prevent abuse.

"In the current political climate, it's not hard to imagine the government using the ability to determine who may have printed what document for purposes other than identifying counterfeiters," the EFF said. The ACLU recently issued a report revealing that the FBI has amassed more than 1,100 pages of documents on the organization since 2001, as well as documents concerning other non-violent groups, including Greenpeace and United for Peace and Justice.

EFF notes that only the privacy policy of your printer manufacturers - rather than any legislative controls - stop the Secret Service from using printer codes to secretly trace the origin of non-currency documents. "No law regulates what sort of documents the Secret Service or any other domestic or foreign government agency is permitted to request for identification, not to mention how such a forensics tool could be developed and implemented in printers in the first place. With no laws on the books, there's nothing to stop the privacy violations this technology enables," the EFF warns.

All this sounds like the stuff of black helicopter conspiracy theory but the EFF wants to flesh out its preliminary research by gathering information about what printers are revealing and how. It's asking consumers to get involved by sending in test sheets from colour laser printers. In addition to documenting what printers are revealing, the EFF is filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request over the issue. These research efforts are a necessary precursor to any legal challenge from the EFF and ammunition for possible lobbying on legislation to protect consumer privacy. ®

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Related links

EFF white paper: Investigating Machine Identification Code Technology in Color Laser Printers

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