HP Color Laser printers – printing more than you thought they were…

Printer DotsSo it’s been a while (again), but I’ve been busy with the followup of the launch of Bouncepad 2.0. Late last week, I read about Seeing Yellow, a website that talks about “printer dots” and calls on people to contact the manufacturer of their printers (color laser printers only) to inquire as to how to disable them.

The vast majority of you are probably asking what, exactly, printer dots are and why they should be disabled. Printer Dots are a technology employed in most color laser printers that allows law enforcement to track a particular document to the printer that printed it, and potentially the user of that printer that printed it. The image at the top is an example of what printer dots look like up close. As you will see below, I’ve gotten confirmation that a.) they exist and b.) are used primarily by law enforcement (read: secret service) to fight against counterfeit currency. That’s a noble cause, but a widespread misuse of technology to achieve the goal. There are, in fact, no safeguards in place to limit law enforcement access to this information – it’s rife with potential for abuse!

So, because of this, and because I occasionally print from an HP laser printer that does include these dots, I decided to email HP’s privacy division to inquire as to whether or not I could disable the dot system, and to find out more about the program. Below is my initial email and the response I received this morning:

Original Message:

I’d like to ask briefly about the forensic tracking codes in your
lasterjet line of printers. I’m an advocate of the sanctity of privacy
for the peoples of the United States, and as such would like to know if
there’s a way to disable such codes from being printed. The
specific printer is a 3600DN, which I use occasionally.

Is there currently a way to disable these codes from being printed?
Why are they in there to begin with? If there’s no way to do it ON
the printer, is there a software update available that will allow it to
be shut off?

Thanks in advance!

-John

and the response:

Greetings John,

Regarding your message shown below:

Color laser printers from HP are of such high quality that they can
easily be used to counterfeit currency. Many countries have laws that
prohibit the manufacture of devices capable of counterfeiting currency.
In cooperation with law enforcement agencies HP color laser printers
print a pattern of yellow dots that are not visible under normal
conditions. These yellow dots can identify the printer that generated
the page. The technology to create the pattern and the algorithm to
print the pattern were not developed by HP. The details of this
technology and the ability to decode the pattern are kept confidential
and are not available to HP. The company that controls this technology
will only reveal the meaning of a pattern to law enforcement agencies
that have the proper legal authorization. Therefore HP does not know
how to disable this functionality.

Regards,
Bob D

HP World Wide Imaging and Printing Group Privacy Manager

I did modify that slightly, to only make the first initial of Bob’s last name available. I thought it was a fairly straightforward reply, potentially being honest or potentially avoiding the hot seat by blaming it all on law enforcement and this mystery company that controls the technology. I decided, however, to take it another step further and inquire more directly about the mystery company, and any safeguards that may be in place to protect people from abuse and misuse of the technology. Below is that exchange, which took place today:

Bob,

Thanks for your honesty in your reply. I suspected the
forensic
codes were linked to counterfeit currency. Are there any
safeguards with this program / these codes that protect ordinary
citizens from privacy violations? Since HP doesn’t know much about
the technology, can you tell me what company, exactly, controls this
technology? Perhaps they can answer my questions more completely
than you would be able to. For instance under what circumstances do
they give information to federal and local law enforcement?

Again, thanks for your honesty in answering my inquiry, I appreciate
it.

-John

The response, which I got a few minutes ago, did cause me to laugh out loud (or, LOL to you internet addicts out there):

The safeguards that are in place are the fact that the formula to decode
the dots is held by one company and only law enforcement is given
access. Details of how this is accomplished is kept confidential so it
doesn’t tip off the bad guys.

I’m not sure which company developed the technology.

Sorry I can’t tell you more. If they told me they’d have to kill me.

Regards,
Bob

Well, I didn’t really get my question answered. I have a sneaking suspicion that I will never know what mystery company controls the technology, or as a citizen be able to read their privacy policy and the rules and regulations that govern who gets access to information about the codes and who doesn’t, and under what circumstances. I can understand the need for secrecy in some instances, but are we really supposed to allow for potential privacy violations with no method for the general public to exercise oversight? The supposed safeguards are that only one company controls things, and only law enforcement is allowed to access it – something that at some point in history might have made me feel at least moderately safe but now only makes me wonder. With all the stories hitting the news outlets lately discussing how the FBI had illegally abused the Patriot Act in their investigations, it’s becoming pretty obvious that our federal law enforcement agencies are, much like the current executive branch, taking liberties with their actions and trying to get away with doing whatever they want. That doesn’t exactly reassure me about this printer dot stuff..

To those of you who would say “if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear”, I don’t have anything to hide but that doesn’t mean I don’t reserve the right to hide everything and expect that the government (and it’s law enforcement arm) respect my wishes for privacy.

[edit:   One of the guys from Seeing Yellow mentioned to me that he thinks the guy from HP is full of crap,  and on a suggestion I decided to continue the email correspondence with Bob to try and get more answers out of him.   I will post my results here when I get them.    Thanks go to Mako for the thoughts and comments. ]

[tags] HP, SeeingYellow, EFF, Printer Dots, Laser Printers [/tags]

About John

John is a 31 year old husband, cyclist, runner, photographer, blogger, product manager, beer brewer and wine snob. Not necessarily in that order.
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6 Responses to HP Color Laser printers – printing more than you thought they were…

  1. kai says:

    Step One:

    Print document.

    Step Two:

    Photocopy document on a B&W photocopier not connected to you in any traceable way.

    Step Three:

    Distribute midget porn fliers all around the town without fear of reprisal.

  2. John says:

    See, then you can’t have full color midget porn fliers, and that’s where the REAL fun is….

    in all seriousness, there are ways around it – like not buying a color laser printer – but in order to do that you have to know that the codes are there in the first place. Most people don’t.

  3. Martin says:

    Hey, get a laser printer from Europe! I don’t think it’s happening here (I will try to investigate with my printer….).

  4. Pingback: Seeing yellow over color printer tracking devices | Your Software Updates...!!

  5. Ben Lilly says:

    I can tell you the name of the “Company”– it’s called the NSA.

  6. Ben Lilly says:

    Sorry, one more thing: Now that the word is out, you can bet you butt that they have something else that does the same thing and they’re using they yellow dots as a diversion.

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