Around the same time the NSA began monitoring your phone calls, texts, and internet activity without a warrant in 2005, similarly secret shadowy government officials birthed a campaign of print surveillance that’s still going strong today. Whereas wiretapping discourages the casual subversive exchange, this parallel campaign infringes on the basic right of every psycho across this great land to publish anonymously and shit-talk freely. The modern printing press--your standard color laser printer--is programmed to print a matrix of tiny yellow tracking dots, invisible to the naked eye. The dots are arranged in a pattern that can be encoded to contain anything from the printer's serial number to the exact time that the document was printed. With a scanner and Photoshop anyone who wants to can see the dots and, with some knowledge and patience, decode them. That means if you’re in Beijing and someone finds the Falun Gong newsletter you printed on your HP 2600n, expect to have your genitals mutilated by the Chinese police.
No one knows for sure when printer tracking started but the best guesses hover around 2000. Since then, people in offices, universities, government buildings, and homes across the world have unknowingly submitted their private documents to tracking. The dots were quietly devised, presumably as an anti-counterfeit measure, in backroom meetings at national banks and businesses in China, Europe, and the US. To implement the plan, the Secret Service and Treasury Department did little more than simply ask all the major printer manufacturers to comply by installing firmware on their printers.
When asked about the implications of printer surveillance, European Commission Vice President Franco Frattini acknowledged it as a human rights concern. The surveillance "May give rise to the violation of fundamental human rights,” he says, “namely the right to privacy and private life." One of the most shocking aspects of printer tracking is just how little information there is about it. The yellow dots have been featured in the news less than a dozen times since California-based Electronic Frontier Foundation publicly announced their existence in 2004.
It sounds all Big Brother alarmist to get freaked out about some impending hostile regime takeover using these dots as a way of tracking us, but how about the simple fact that poking around in other people's business is fucking rude? I spoke with B. Mako Hill, an MIT researcher and founder of Seeing Yellow, an anti-tracking dot organization. Seeing Yellow, along with the EFF, has been trying to spread the word about print tracking since 2005. Together they’ve decoded the dots, parsed through Freedom of Information Act documents, and called printer companies and the Secret Service to ream them out for mass exploitation.
Vice: “Seeing Yellow” sort of sounds like a pee fetish site. What is it, really?
B. Mako Hill: The point of Seeing Yellow was to organize lots and lots of people to call in and complain about their printers. We’ve had thousands and thousands of people.
Something like 17,000, right?
Yeah, that’s what the number’s at now. It’s a lot.
But the EFF came first.
The EFF publicized this more than a year before I started Seeing Yellow. The EFF knew about the dots pretty early on. Not necessarily early on for the dots: they were there at least a couple years I think. A number of people decided to do something about this, or were upset about it, and at least one person called up their printer manufacturer to complain about the printer dots and in particular asked to turn them off. Not only did the printer manufacturer not tell him how to do it, but a couple days later the secret service showed up at his house and said, “We heard you want to turn off the tracking dots on your printer. Why would a law-abiding citizen like you want to do that?” And they asked him a lot of questions and gave him a hard time.
You requested a bunch of documents using the Freedom Of Information Act. What’re you finding?
We’re still going through them. The EFF actually received another large number of FOIA documents. The EFF has been receiving quite a few of them. My understanding is that the documents themselves are kind of funny. When you request FOIA documents you have to be very explicit about what you want. FOIA is a little bit tricky, because you don’t know what you’re getting, it’s hard to make good requests. The usual technique is to be groundly overbroad so you get thousands of pages of stuff, most of which is going to be completely irrelevant, right? But hopefully you get those nuggets. Now we have a good idea of which banks and organizations were involved in this and the period of time in which it happened. We’re beginning to be able to piece together the story of who’s involved, who asked for this, who planned this, which companies in were involved in the creation of these dots, how and whether anyone was forced to do this, or if they were just asked.
It’s creepy how anyone who cares is questioned why they’d want to be anonymous, like not wanting to let people in on your business is proof that you’re a spy with something to hide. How do you respond to that?
One of the first things Seeing Yellow did was print off color copies of the Federalist Papers, which of course were published anonymously, initially, and were very important in terms of shaping the US government. Just as a very subtle jab at the idea of “Why would you want to be anonymous?” The fact is that anonymous publication has played a very important role in the history of the US government.
What kind of stuff can a printer tell about me? Does it know my birthday, and that I had a bad weekend?
We don’t know because we haven’t decoded most of the printers. We only have a complete decoding of one of them. But there is reason to believe that they all have at least very similar information. Time, date, page count, serial number. Others could have potentially other information. If your printer has the name of the person who bought it, it might include that.
Has anyone fessed up to the existence of these nefarious dots?
All of the printer companies as far as we know admitted that they put intentionally identifiable information in color laser print outs, or have refused to identify one way or the other whether they do. No one has come forward and said “We do not put intentionally identifiable information in our color printouts.” And there’s no reason to believe that no one doesn’t. That said, there are certain documents we have not been able to find the tracking dots in.
What happens when you call manufacturers to complain?
We had a really high-end printer from HP, so that was the first company I called. Often color lasers tend to be high-end printers so you’d tend to get very responsive, good customer service. You’re talking about a $5,000 or $10,000 printer in some cases, so they want to treat you well. The calls have changed over time, but at least early on you would call up and say, “Hi, I have this printer and there are these yellow dots on my page,” and at least initially people would say things like, “That can’t be right. It sounds like we’re gonna have to take a look at it.” And I’d say, “No, I’m pretty sure these are actually intentional.”
They thought it was some kind of malfunction.
Initially the people in customer service didn’t know about it, and those were actually pretty good conversations. Customer service people ended up saying, “Listen, we’ll write something up and send it to our supervisor.” So we had this idea that they would be noting in at least some organized way that people were unhappy about this. Over time, they started having a more canned answer. I think if you called up today you would get this: “Yes, we know about this. It’s intentional. All we can say is that this is something that’s been put in there in coordination with law enforcement.” There you go. That’s the way the conversations end up happening these days. They’ve had thousands of people calling and they know the routine at this point.
Don’t the manufacturers say it’s to prevent counterfeiting? Are you buying that hogwash?
I guess I find it pretty believable. I believe that’s the reason it was put there initially. You’ve certainly seen anti-counterfeiting steps in lots of other pieces of hardware. For whatever reason the Treasury, or the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, has been pretty effective at getting software and hardware modified to prohibit the reproduction of money. If you get a copy of Photoshop and you try to scan a dollar bill, the program will either intentionally not scan it, in some cases because of money detectors, or it will output something that is somehow broken. They actually look for patterns to identify money. This has been going on for a long time.
Come on, there’s got to be a scandal or conspiracy somewhere. Have you seen evidence anywhere of the tracking software being used for anything other than catching counterfeiters?
There have been presentations at these private document examiners conferences on using tracking dots. So, yes. It’s certainly true that people know about these, people outside the government both know about the tracking dots and know how to decode them.
What freaks me out is that anyone who is aware of this and learns to decode the dots can track anyone else. It’s putting a surveillance capability into the hands of anyone who cares to learn about it.
That’s right. People have written in with things like, “I’m working on this software to print an interference pattern of yellow dots on the page that will make the other dots unreadable.” I tend to not be really excited about those projects. And the reason isn’t that I think they will not work or that I think they wouldn’t be effective for certain people. I’m not as worried about them in the case of people who realize the dots are there. The problem is that the vast majority of people, every time they print one of these documents, have no idea they’re there. People believe that they’re potentially much more anonymous when they print documents than in fact they are. The worst part about this is that they’ve been added without knowledge of anyone and no one can turn them off.