- WASHINGTON -- Next time you
make a printout from your color laser printer, shine an LED flashlight
beam on it and examine it closely with a magnifying glass. You might be
able to see the small, scattered yellow dots printer there that could be
used to trace the document back to you.
- According to experts, several printer companies quietly
encode the serial number and the manufacturing code of their color laser
printers and color copiers on every document those machines produce.
including the United States, already use the hidden markings to track
- Peter Crean, a senior research fellow at Xerox, says
his company's laser printers, copiers and multifunction workstations, such
as its WorkCentre Pro series, put the "serial number of each machine
coded in little yellow dots" in every printout. The millimeter-sized
dots appear about every inch on a page, nestled within the printed words
- "It's a trail back to you, like a license
- The dots' minuscule size, covering less than
of the page, along with their color combination of yellow on white, makes
them invisible to the naked eye, Crean says. One way to determine if your
color laser is applying this tracking process is to shine a blue LED
from a keychain laser flashlight--on your page and use a magnifier.
- Crime Fighting vs. Privacy
- Laser-printing technology makes it incredibly easy to
counterfeit money and documents, and Crean says the dots, in use in some
printers for decades, allow law enforcement to identify and track down
- However, they could also be employed to track a document
back to any person or business that printed it. Although the technology
has existed for a long time, printer companies have not been required to
notify customers of the feature.
- Lorelei Pagano, a counterfeiting specialist with the
U.S. Secret Service, stresses that the government uses the embedded serial
numbers only when alerted to a forgery. "The only time any information
is gained from these documents is purely in [the case of] a criminal
- John Morris, a lawyer for The Center for Democracy and
Technology, says, "That type of assurance doesn't really assure me
at all, unless there's some type of statute." He adds, "At a
bare minimum, there needs to be a notice to consumers."
- If the practice disturbs you, don't bother trying to
disable the encoding mechanism--you'll probably just break your
- Crean describes the device as a chip located "way
in the machine, right near the laser" that embeds the dots when the
document "is about 20 billionths of a second" from
- "Standard mischief won't get you around it,"
- Neither Crean nor Pagano has an estimate of how many
laser printers, copiers, and multifunction devices track documents, but
they say that the practice is commonplace among major printer
- "The industry absolutely has been extraordinarily
helpful [to law enforcement]," Pagano says.
- According to Pagano, counterfeiting cases are brought
to the Secret Service, which checks the documents, determines the brand
and serial number of the printer, and contacts the company. Some, like
Xerox, have a customer database, and they share the information with the
- Crean says Xerox and the government have a good
"The U.S. government had been on board all along--they would actually
come out to our labs," Crean says.
- Unlike ink jet printers, laser printers, fax machines,
and copiers fire a laser through a mirror and series of lenses to embed
the document or image on a page. Such devices range from a little over
$100 to more than $1000, and are designed for both home and office.
- Crean says Xerox pioneered this technology about 20 years
ago, to assuage fears that their color copiers could easily be used to
- "We developed the first (encoding mechanism) in
house because several countries had expressed concern about allowing us
to sell the printers in their country," Crean says.
- Since then, he says, many other companies have adopted
- The United States is not the only country teaming with
private industry to fight counterfeiters. A recent article points to the
Dutch government as using similar anticounterfeiting methods, and cites
Canon as a company with encoding technology. Canon USA declined to
- Copyright © 2004
- World Communications, Inc.