Your Printer Is Spying on You, Part II

Some of you may be aware that the US secret service had ordered that all color laser printers include nearly-invisible yellow tracking dots on every page you print. That’s right–every color page you print is serialized and trackable to the printer it came from. I have a couple of posts on the topic from a while ago.

I just got a note in my email that the Secret Service appeared at someone’s doorstep, harassing them, after they called a printer manufacturer to request that the dots be turned off. That’s ridiculous. You’d expect to hear stories like this about some other goverments overseas. I don’t want my government to harass me when I make a basic request about my privacy, although I’m sure the Post-Patriot act government today could trivially invade my privacy with impunity if they wanted to.

At least, the government should have had the courtesy to let me know they were going to implement such measures. Stopping counterfeits is a good thing but it’s just spooky when the government can release such broad, uncontrolled and unregulated invasions of privacy with enormous potential for unintended consequences, without even the courtesy of a note or a vote. What else are they doing? And now they are putting the thumb down on people for simply inquiring about such activities? This is the path to madness.

At any rate, Mako put together a website ( to help protest the issue. I encourage you to check it out!

13 Responses to “Your Printer Is Spying on You, Part II”

  1. Brent says:

    Thanks for this, I just tested this on my HP 842c. Printed a high quality full colour test sheet at 600×600 dpi, scanned it in as 600 dpi, then inversed the scanned image (blue-on-black is easier to see than yellow-on-white).

    It seems my printer does not spy on me :)

  2. Seth Schoen says:

    Brent, I think that’s an inkjet printer; typically only color laser printers use this mechanism.

  3. Jered says:

    I agree that this sort of corporate complicity is despicable, but have you found any sources for the “Secret Service visited a guy who asked how to turn off the feature” story? The only place I’ve been able to find it at all is on the website you linked to.

    If it turns out to not be real, then we just look like a bunch of paranoid freaks. If it is real, there should be a news story or court filing somewhere…

  4. bunnie says:

    It’s a fair question about the “I heard it from someone who heard that something happened in a galaxy far far away…”. I got the email from Mako–maybe I’ll shoot him a note to see if he has any references on the Secret Service visit.

    While it is a significant point, I think even without a visit from the secret service, the principle of privacy has been violated, and it’s something to keep an eye on. It’s probably a good idea though to avoid storming any government offices though until the facts have been independently verified.

  5. Seth Schoen says:

    I’ve corresponded directly with a person who was visited by the Secret Service. There is no public record of this event because no charges were filed and no litigation has resulted. Neither the Secret Service nor the person they visited issued a press release, so no press coverage has resulted.

    I realize that this doesn’t meet, say, Wikipedia’s standards for verifiability, but it’s difficult to think of a simple way to make it publicly verifiable that law enforcement has investigated someone who didn’t want to be identified and was not charged with a crime. I guess you could try asking the Secret Service.

  6. bunnie says:

    Well, that’s an interesting situation. You, Seth, are definitely one of the most credible people I know so I’ll take your word on faith, but I wouldn’t expect the general public to accept my endorsement so trivially, since most have not had the luck to meet you in person. On the other hand, because of this gray area in terms of verfiability, it seems that the Secret Service may have found themselves a sweet spot where they can both intimidate selective targets and get away with it via plausible deniability–clearly, the person that the Secret Service visited wouldn’t be looking for any more trouble if it was resolved peacefully, but also, the person who was visited probably won’t feel as free to express him or herself from this point moving forward since the government has passed its chilly gaze in his direction. After all, who wants to volunteer to spend the next few years in a lawsuit with the government? Lawsuits like this often times reduce into a war of attrition–any ruling would be appealed by one party or the other–and few people have the luxury of the means or the will to stand up to and win against the government.

    It’s an interesting method that can probably be broadly applied to oppress people in an otherwise free society.

    In the end, please keep us updated if there are any new developments in this area. Otherwise, I do encourage people to still personally lobby manufacturers to get the tracking dots removed on their color printers on the sole principle that they shouldn’t be there, or if you disagree with that, at least you may agree that they shouldn’t have gotten there the way they did, and that the government is obligated to disclose to the public when they put in place any measures that could be used or abused to spy on their own people–or worse yet, a measure like this, where the side effect is that anyone, regardless of good or bad intent, could potentially track down the origin of the pages that you print.

    The strategy of “just asking” the secret service is interesting. I wonder if they are bound at all by law to tell the truth…although even if they were bound by law to repsond truthfully and fully, I could still see ways they could get out of it unless the law was very carefully crafted.

    Best of luck to the anonymous person, I hope it all ends without incident for him or her.

  7. Nate says:

    The Secret Service uses visits all the time. There’s no search warrant needed and they can claim to be just gathering info.

    Besides, it doesn’t matter on this particular issue whether or not they visited anyone. What matters is that vendors began adding a privacy destroying feature without notifying anyone and without legal pressure (i.e. a law passed by Congress). We need to put pressure on the vendors to revert this and not do it in the future. Companies should not cooperate with law enforcement without legal measures requiring it. This is the same thing as a company giving out your personal information to a law enforcement person who was “just interested in knowing what info they have on me.”

    There’s a good reason why search warrants exist.

  8. Brent says:

    [“Brent, I think that’s an inkjet printer; typically only color laser printers use this mechanism.”]

    Oh, well I guess I’m just paranoid then ;)

  9. Felix says:

    I’m rather shocked how people take it as given that your hardware is spying on you, like this one:

    Sure, breaking copyrights and the will of the copyright owners to prosecute those people is one thing, but openly admitting that information, which YOUR consumer hardware left there *intentionally* without letting you know will be used to track the owners “using repair shop information” just makes me stunned.

  10. Alan Parekh says:

    That will be the next bullet point on the product specs at Best Buy, “Includes US Secret Service Dot Security Protection”

  11. Travis says:

    Hmm, this is dispicable. kinda reminds me how the government has been planning a one world government, ohh wait..thats just a “conspiracy theory” as people claim. You have quite an interesting blog Mr. bunnie. I have you’re book, hacking the xbox, it’s a pretty nice book!
    You’re awesome!!

  12. Sarah Meyer says:

    This Holiday season if you need help finding the right printer to go along with your Tablet PC or as a gift for a loved one who already has the perfect tablet or notebook, look no further then my sister site for a very informative guide to what’s best for your needs.