July 24, 2005 | By Donna Wentworth

Is Your Printer Spying On You?

Help EFF Watch the Watchers

Imagine that every time you printed a document, it automatically included a secret code that could be used to identify the printer -- and potentially, the person who used it. Sounds like something from an episode of "Alias," right?

Unfortunately, the scenario isn't fictional. In an effort to identify counterfeiters, the US government has succeeded in persuading some color laser printer manufacturers to encode each page with identifying information. That means that without your knowledge or consent, an act you assume is private could become public. A communication tool you're using in everyday life could become a tool for government surveillance. And what's worse, there are no laws to prevent abuse.

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. 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. Your freedom to speak anonymously is in danger.

Yet there are no laws to stop the Secret Service -- or for that matter, any other governmental agency or private company -- from using printer codes to secretly trace the origin of non-currency documents. We're unaware of any printer manufacturer that has a privacy policy that would protect you, and no law regulates what people can do with the information once it's turned over. And that doesn't even reach the issue of how such a privacy-invasive tool could be developed and implemented in printers without the public becoming aware of it in the first place.

With nothing on the books, we lack tools to stop the privacy and anonymity violations this technology enables. For this reason, EFF is gathering information about what printers are revealing and how -- a necessary precursor to any legal challenge or new legislation to protect your privacy. And we could use your help.

In this preliminary research paper, we explain what we've observed so far, briefly explore the privacy implications, and ask you to print and send us test sheets from your color laser printer and/or a color laser printer at your local print shop. That way, we can watch the watchers and ensure that your privacy isn't compromised in ways that harm your fundamental constitutional rights.

In addition to documenting what printers are revealing, EFF is filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, and we will keep you updated on what we discover. In the meantime, we urge you to participate in this research project and pass the word along. Thank you for your support!

Directions for printing test sheets.

ACLU report: FBI Is Keeping Documents on ACLU and Other Peaceful Groups


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