Secret coding by household printers is the government's violation of our trust

It sounds like some crazy conspiracy theory, but it isn’t. On Oct. 17, the EFF revealed that it had cracked the code used by a line of Xerox printers. The printers would print a series of tiny yellow dots invisible to the naked eye that contained information detailing the serial number of the printer as well as the date and time that the document was printed. They also found that printers from almost all major printer brands, including Canon and Hewlett-Packard, print similar coded dot sequences. And the U.S. Secret Service doesn’t deny it either.

In fact, for at least 10 years the Secret Service has been working with color laser printer manufacturers to prevent counterfeiting using coded dot sequences. That means for 10 years the government has been infringing on the public’s privacy without anyone noticing.

How can the government expect to receive any trust and support from the general public when they are secretly taking away citizens’ constitutional rights? While the government asks for our support in fighting a war on terrorism to protect our freedoms, they simultaneously take them away from us without our knowledge. As they fight one form of terrorism, they create their own brand of it. An activist may not have to fear a terrorist attack when he goes to work everyday, but now every time he prints out a document, he must fear his document being traced back to him. A corporation may not fear its buildings being destroyed by terrorists, but now every time it prints a privacy-sensitive document it must fear that the document will become compromised. It’s complete hypocrisy.

Compounding this problem is the fact that the coded dot sequence itself is not encrypted in a highly secure manner. The EFF merely handed off a couple months worth of documents to an intern, and he came back in a week with the code cracked. It doesn’t take an enigma machine to decipher this code. Not only the government, but anyone with a blue flashlight and a magnifying glass can decode the yellow dot sequences. It’s so easy that the EFF even provides online instructions so anyone can do it. Consequently, through the implementation of the coded dot sequence, not only is the government infringing on the public’s privacy, but they are also making it possible for anyone with a blue light and a magnifying glass to do the same. Although the government may have intended to use the code only to prevent counterfeiting, they have opened up a host of other privacy issues.

For instance, one justification President Bush has used to promote the war on terrorism is the need to make the world “safe for Democracy.” Yet if anything, the printer codes are endangering those who favor democracy but live under repressive governments. Printers are sold not only in the United States, but in all nations around the world. If a printer made in the U.S. were to be bought by an activist in a country with a repressive government, the government could use the coded dot sequences on the documents printed by the activist to track him down and prevent him from expressing his views. Since the code is so weakly encrypted it would be very easy for the repressive government to use it against activists to hinder their ability to express their views.

Moreover, all of this secrecy forces us to question what else our government is doing. If they can secretly get our seemingly harmless printers to infringe on our privacy, what else could they do? Right now the version of Windows that I am running on my computer could secretly be sending data to the government detailing what Web sites I view or whom I email, in similar manner to spyware. I doubt that this conspiracy theory is actually true, but because of what the government is doing to my printer without my knowledge, I now have to fear what the government may be doing to anything I own.

I’m perfectly fine with the government preventing counterfeiting, but I’d like to know about it. I don’t mind the implementation of the coded dot sequence, but I do mind that the government implemented it without my knowledge and with such carelessness (they used a code an intern could crack).

In the end, the biggest loser in this situation will be the government itself. The privacy of a few people may be infringed upon, but it’s unlikely the coded dot sequence will have a very large tangible negative impact on the American public. However, the coded dot sequence will have a large impact on the American public’s trust in the government. The carelessness with which the coded dot sequence was implemented will cause the general public to question how effectively the government can carry out its goals. The secrecy with which the government carried out the coded dot sequence program will cause the general public to question what else the government is doing without its knowledge. These issues will create a general lack of trust in the government itself and will hinder the government’s ability to rally public support in the future. Consequently, the government needs to seek reconciliation quickly and recover as much support as it can before the American public loses faith in the government entirely.

Barbieri can be reached at [email protected]