We’ve all heard the saying “leaving a paper trail”. It references how people can track your actions through documents such as emails or financial records. But did you know your documents aren’t the only ones leaving a trail? Your printing privacy is at risk!

Thanks to the recent story of an NSA contractor leaking classified information to a news outlet, the bewildering fact that your laser printer is using microscopic yellow dots to spy on you has resurfaced.

Many news outlets reported that the NSA contractor was tracked down by the infamous yellow dots but quite the opposite is true. She was tracked down by a good old-fashioned paper trail and detective work.

Nevertheless, the accusations of the yellow dots sparked the public’s interest and here we are.

The History Behind the Ink

By the time the 80s had come around people were tired of their standard black and white printing so color printers came on to the scene.

However, with this new and exciting technology came the fear of providing counterfeiters a much easier way to forge fake money.

Their fear was not without merit, Japan especially was suffering from an upswing of counterfeit money being circulated. Fuji-Xerox soon produced the solution. In the form of printer steganography. Formally known as the yellow dot solution.

Defined as “a digital watermark which certain color laser printers and copiers leave on every single printed page, allowing to identify the device with which a document was printed and giving clues to the originator.”

The addition of this new traceable technology was so popular that some countries refused to import printers without it. Making it about as a standard as a toner cartridge.

Quartz points out that countries wanted the “assurance” of being able to track counterfeiters.

The U.S. was one of the countries that preferred the edition. Peter Crean, a former senior researcher at Xerox who’s been linked to the yellow dot technology, was in the thick of it when it was implemented.

He described to Quartz that, “They put it on early and we went along with it because the machines came with it.”

Xerox spokesman Bill McKee also concurred in an interview to USA Today in 2008: “In many cases, it is a requirement to do business internationally that the printers are equipped with the technology.”


The Implications

To no one’s surprise, ordinary people (and criminals for that matter) weren’t too thrilled to hear their printing paper could track them.

It doesn’t help that since its invention, printer companies have never been required to notify customers of the feature being present on their printers.

Websites like the EFF and SeeingYellow sprang to the Constitutions defense saying “there are no laws to stop the Secret Service from using printer codes to secretly trace the origin of non-currency documents…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.”

EFF has even gone so far as to publish a list of known printer companies that include the technology. However, with color printers becoming more and more of a norm, the list has become impossible to keep up with.

EFF stated that “It appears likely that all recent commercial color laser printers print some kind of forensic tracking codes, not necessarily using yellow dots.

This is true whether or not those codes are visible to the eye and whether or not the printer models are listed here. This also includes the printers that are listed here as not producing yellow dots.”

Xerox may have had an inkling that the public may not be too pleased. Crean told Quartz “We didn’t advertise it much to the people that had the printers. We didn’t not tell them if they asked.”

In fact, Xerox went as far as trying to appeal to the cool side of the tech. Crean continues by telling Quartz that they pushed the idea as being “neat” and that the nerds of the world would get “a kick out of it.”

The sad fact is the tech isn’t even working to prevent its nemesis from happening. According to an article done by The Washington Post, the biggest and best counterfeiters come from Peru.

How are they creating the fake money you may ask?

Simple.

The skill of artisans and printing presses. And you can be sure yellow tracking dots aren’t appearing on those bills. Turns out when Data finds the printing press printing fifty dollar bills in The Goonies he should have kept them because the Fratellis had it right.

The Anti-counterfeiting division of the Secret Service is constantly adding different designs to bills to discern real from fakes.

The counterfeiters, however, are so talented that the division has an informal pool each time a design comes out for how quickly the counterfeiters will catch on and start adding the new editions.

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The Aftermath

Lorelei Pagano from the Secret Service counterfeiting department told PCWorld in their 2004 interview “The only time any information is gained from these documents is purely in the case of a criminal act.”

She went on to say that “The industry absolutely has been extraordinarily helpful to law enforcement.”

Crean agrees in the same article stating that “The U.S. government had been on board all along.”

He describes the yellow dot technology as “a trail back to you, like a license plate.”

The Secret Service puts a lot of confidence it the almost three-decade-old technology.

But what about nowadays?

Is your laser printer adding the embedded codes to your print jobs? Could be. Currently, Snopes gives a “Mostly true” verdict to the question of whether or not the dots are still happening today.

At this point, it’s almost impossible to remove the little chip that embeds the dots in any way. Chances are that printing companies will continue the practice indefinitely. Or until your printer finds a better way to spy on you.

But it’s unlikely to stop any of us from printing for good.

I don’t know about you but I’m going to keep a closer eye on my toaster oven.