Printer Unique Identification Technology

According to this article the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has been aware of and alerting the public to unique printer identification or “printer dots” since about 2004. It goes on to state that the companies who have implemented this have done so of free will and in collusion with the United States government. The EFF has kindly provided a list of printers that have been tested for “anomalous yellow dots” that indicate unique identification. This article explains what the results mean and how they were obtained as to expose their methodology to as much scrutiny as possible. According to this document obtained by the EFF through a Freedom of Information Act request Canon, Brother, Casio, Hewlett-Packard, Konica, Minolta, Mita, Ricoh, Sharp, and Xerox are complicit in these acts.

The implementation of a tracking device, especially without informing the citizen/consumer of its existence, is very troubling because it directly violates the right to anonymous, free speech, a pillar of our cultural identity. A more troubling idea is that not only can the government read and interrupt this data, but so can anybody with the knowledge to do so which includes _AT LEAST_ the a handful of people in each of the above mentioned companies. This also opens the door for a person or persons to forge a paper from another persons printer and use it against them while being much harder to detect or disprove.

Interestingly enough act utilitarianism could plausibly used to justify this, especially since most people are ignorant of this fact, but the more applicable idea of moral rights theory is in a strange stalemate depending on who is asked. Founding father Ben Franklin stated “[s]ell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor Liberty to purchase power,” or more colloquially, “[h]e who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.”

Are the freedoms sacrificed worth the security gained?

6 Responses to Printer Unique Identification Technology

  1. This is really interesting and it is even more disturbing. It seems like a direct violation to a person’s right to freedom and to a person’s free speech. At the same time, I agree it is likely right by utilitarianism simply because of the small number of people outside of these companies and the government that know about it and the potential benefit it could(and probably has) in tracking criminals and terrorists. But, who decides who the terrorists and criminals are? Governments do, corrupt or not. Although this can be used to protect the public it can also be used by corrupt governments (i.e. all governments) to suppress the people’s opposition to their government. Like the article mentioned, maintaining anonymous is an important protection for religious and political groups against a corrupt and repressive government which allowing a person to be tracked by a serial number on their paper obviously damages. A person shouldn’t have to give up their right to free speech and press to stay anonymous. It makes one wonder how many times this has been used in the past by foreign government to stop rebellions and our own government to stop criminals and to track what should be anonymous mail back to an individual.

  2. tyler.hugenberg

    First, I would like to say this post is very well said and thought out.

    I think anonymity is a very important aspect to the free spread of information. Let’s consider the rule: distribution of all documents to be made public are always tagged so the printer can be identified. Not only is this universalizable from a Kantian perspective, it appears to give much happiness from a rule utilitarian perspective. Documents deemed undesirable, threatening, or otherwise dangerous, could be tracked to a printer and possibly to the person(s) involved in the printing. This is not an active window or camera looking through the paper at the writer, but a way of tracking with considerable effort.

    This sounds a little pedantic with paper and ink, but consider the implications on 3D printing. Once people begin making some really crazy things, think outside the box, its important to track where it was printed and by whom.

  3. I think this is definitely a tricky situation. I am all for freedom of speech but I can also see how being able to trace things like ransom notes or threatening letter could be extremely beneficial if not lifesaving. Even if this only proves help once in a while, it is very valuable to have in those situations. I think the biggest problem I have with it is that I had no idea this has been going on for almost ten years. It definitely seems deceitful to some extent and I feel like a certain degree of my privacy has been invaded.

    However, the reason I can’t get totally mad about this secrecy is that if they made it explicit when the printer was bought, people who planed on printing ransom notes or threats would just find another mean to print them out, such as a library. The only way you can use this technology to catch someone is if they don’t know the technology exists. I also feel like this is a case of “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” I still feel deceived to a certain degree and can’t help but wonder what other similar situations or methods don’t I know about. Is my location being taken without me know how or why? (most likely) Will this ever come back to bite me in the ass? I guess I would just like to know when what I’m doing is being documented or traced.

  4. I actually support the idea of placing identifiers onto papers for use in tracking down authors. The main reason why I agree with this is that when you give this paper to someone or place it in a public place, you agree to put this communication into the public. If you don’t want someone to see a note or learn more about it, don’t place it in a place where others are free to find. Part of the reason that I take this stance comes down to whether if anonymity is a right. Unlike privacy, anonymity only pertains to the ability to be identified. By being a part of society you are already relinquishing part of your anonymity.

    Your actions can also have a large impact on others in society and being able to tie those actions to a person holds them accountable. Anonymous letters are used very often when making threats and being able to track down the author is an essential way to determine the validity and counter measures to stop the threat.

  5. What I find most interesting about this article is the amount of time that this has been happening without people noticing. That point makes me want to bring up the point of ignorance is bliss. The public has been buying these printers for about the past ten years. We the public weren’t the wiser, so we didn’t care about it. I don’t recall any news stories about someone complaining about being tracked by their printed pages, so no harm no foul.
    I like the idea that privacy isn’t an inherent right. Instead “Every ‘Privacy Right’ violation is a violation of another right” (Our Book). This means that people only worry about invasions of privacy when there is a fear of another personal right being violated. People don’t like the idea of being watched, for fear of being prosecuted for a minor crime (illegal downloading), or maybe someone is afraid of someone they know getting ahold of their data. However, in this case where people didn’t know there were being tracked none of their other rights were being violated. I think that this reasoning shows that fear of privacy loss is often out-of-place.
    However, I don’t think this line of reasoning justifies all violations of privacy. Knowledge is power, and if we are in a situation where we are giving our knowledge to an oppressive government, then a lot of our rights can be violated.

  6. I agree with bobt68021 that if you aren’t doing anything wrong, this shouldn’t be a concern. Especially since the way a printer marks the paper is not a way that most people can tell. Special technology must be used in order to identify the paper, and then that must be tracked to the printer and then the user must be identified. This is not an easy or fast process, and therefore will likely only be used in cases where there is a significant threat or danger. If you buy a printer with cash and leave no paper trail, can you still be tracked, especially if you never register the printer with the manufacturer? I suppose your printer could be tested against something else, but only if you are considered suspect.
    I also do not agree that anonymous speech is always a right. If you have the freedom of free speech, then the issue of being known should not be a concern. In this country, you are not going to be prosecuted for speaking your thoughts, so there is no reason to need to be anonymous. If you feel a need to hide your identity, then it is likely you are doing something you shouldn’t be doing, and something that is not protected as a moral right.