PARANOID GOVERNMENTS have been insisting on tiny tracking marks on your printouts since the advent of colour printers.
A report in Quartz reveals that tiny dots, no more than a millimetre in diameter, are printed in yellow on white on many printers, which act as an identifier of the printer's serial number and the date and time of the print.
The chilling news came to light after an NSA contractor was arrested and charged with leaking classified information to the media. The men in black were able to track her down from the tracking codes.
More scarily, the practice has been going on since 2004 and was actually originally revealed by PC World magazine, but it seems very little stink was kicked up over it at the time.
Peter Crean, at the time a research fellow from Xerox, warned that the practice has been going on, in some cases for decades and that they had always been treated as "don't ask, don't tell" rather than a closely guarded secret.
"We didn't advertise it much to the people that had [the printers]. We didn't not tell them if they asked. The salespeople were told, ‘Don't lead with it in any sales, but if they ask you about it, you can tell them we have the security feature in there.'"
Because of the colour scheme (yellow on white) and diminutive size, you've probably never seen one or just assumed it was a glitch on the page, but the truth is it's designed partly as a security measure for tracing the bad guys, but also a way of checking for forgeries.
Many governments believed that once colour printers became affordable, there would be a risk of high-resolution forgeries of documents and even banknotes and insisted that the security measure was there.
A trawl through the INQ archives reveals that, yes indeed we did report on this (back in the day when INQ was put together with crayons and rounded scissors) but the recent arrest has brought the matter back into sharp focus, and in these days of privacy and post-Snowden, it's difficult to know what to think.
The original piece suggests that only the NSA could access the data in the microdot. But they haven't had a great track record of honesty lately, face it. µ
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