February 13, 2008 | By Danny O'Brien

EU: Printer Tracking Dots May Violate Human Rights

We've long been concerned about the human rights risks of printer tracking dots for anyone who publishes printed works with modern technology. Tracking dots are the secret marks that many popular color laser printers and photocopiers scatter across every document they touch. The marks, almost invisible to the eye, uniquely identify the printer that produced the document, and, as EFF uncovered, can even automatically encode the time and date it was created.

Anonymous self-publication and distribution have been, and remain, a vital political communication channel in many countries. A telltale pattern readable by government officials is a tool that oppressive states everywhere would love to have -- not to mention the general threat to individual privacy countries more respectful of human rights.

It turns out that the European Commission, the executive wing of the EU (whose members include many former Eastern Bloc states), shares these concerns. When asked by Satu Hassi, Green Member of European Parliament for Finland, about the legality within Europe of America's tracking dots, Commissioner Frattini said that while the Commission could not uncover a specific law against the dots themselves,

"to the extent that individuals may be identified through material printed or copied using certain equipment, such processing may give rise to the violation of fundamental human rights, namely the right to privacy and private life. It also might violate the right to protection of personal data."

There's some irony in hearing such concerns come from Commissioner Frattini, who is currently championing his own privacy invasions with a proposed EU Passenger Name Record data-mining network.

Nonetheless, at least there is recognition in Europe of the dangers of these yellow dots. It also raises some follow-up questions. Given that including tracking systems in printers appears to be a U.S. government policy, how hard does the EU plan to pressure their ally for change in its secret agreements with printer manufacturers? Is the United States sharing its knowledge of how to decode these dots with individual EU nations' governments? And if so, what other governments, authoritarian or not, know the secret of tracking their citizens' publications?

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