I Thought This Was Just A Lame Conspiracy Theory at First...

I had seen some Internet posts on this before, but I thought it was from the "Aliens were behind the 9/11 attacks" crowd.  But it does appear to really be Big Brother at work:

The pages coming out of your color printer may contain hidden information that
could be used to track you down if you ever cross the U.S.
government.

Last year, an article in PC World magazine pointed out that printouts
from many color laser printers contained yellow dots scattered across the page,
viewable only with a special kind of flashlight. The article quoted a senior
researcher at Xerox Corp. as saying the dots contain information useful to
law-enforcement authorities, a secret digital "license tag" for tracking down
criminals....

Yesterday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco consumer privacy
group, said it had cracked the code used in a widely used line of Xerox
printers, an invisible bar code of sorts that contains the serial number of the
printer as well as the date and time a document was printed...

The EFF said it has identified similar coding on pages printed from
nearly every major printer manufacturer, including Hewlett-Packard Co., though
its team has so far cracked the codes for only one type of Xerox
printer.

The U.S. Secret Service acknowledged yesterday that the markings, which
are not visible to the human eye, are there, but it played down the use for
invading privacy.

This kind of stuff really scares me.  Is there anyone out there that thinks that this won't be used to trace a leak, track down a whistle-blower, or identify an anonymous political critic?  And, even if you are able to conjure up trust that the US government will not use these codes for anything other than fighting counterfeiting, what about use of these codes by private parties?  Or, even more depressing, remember that these printers are being sold today in China, Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe, etc.  Does anyone at all doubt that these governments will use the print codes to identify and silence dissent?

Shame on the government for instituting this program.  Double shame on HP and Xerox for going along in silence, joining the ranks of Microsoft, Cisco, and Yahoo in making adjustments to their technology to make government surveillance and censorship easier.  I don't know of any legislative mandate that requires these printer companies to go along with this, so they are doing this voluntarily - sort of (see below).

For those on the left feeling smug that this is solely a right-wing Bush-is-a-fascist problem, shame also on those who built the economic regulatory state that we live in.  In a truly free economy, HP and Xerox would likely have told the government to take a hike.  However, the government holds a huge regulatory hammer over corporations' head in so many realms that companies in our society find it difficult to tell the government off when they get this type of request.  Its the same story with airlines and banks, who feel compelled to share otherwise private customer data with Homeland Security under the threat of having government retribution fall on them from any number of directions.  We have got to start realizing that government control of economic activity is just as much an imposition as government control of speech or the press.  Freedom of expression does not become voided just because money changes hands.

Many thanks to Marginal Revolution for the link.  Their comment:

Would the Berlin Wall have fallen if East European governments had access to
this kind of technology twenty years ago?

  • Scott in SF

    Wow. Incredible post, Warren.

    Someone should use this in a movie (like "Enemy of the State") because no one would believe it. I love the agency spokesman quote, "It's to protect our currency and to protect people's hard-earned money."

    Yeah, because only the government should be able to debase people's currency.