Is Your Printer Spying On You?

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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 a purported 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.

Yet there are no laws to stop the Secret Service from using printer codes to secretly trace the origin of non-currency documents; only the privacy policy of your printer manufacturer currently protects you (if indeed such a policy exists). And no law regulates what sort of documents the Secret Service or any other domestic or foreign government agency is permitted to request for identification not to mention how such a forensics tool could be developed and implemented in printers in the first place.

With no laws on the books there's nothing to stop the privacy 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 the preliminary research paper linked below 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 has filed 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 and pass the word along about this research project. Thank you for your support!

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