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USA TODAY November 4, 2005

CyberSpeak - Governments, printers reduce privacy

By Andrew Kantor

You've probably heard the saying, "Paranoids have enemies too." Sometimes conspiracy theorists actually uncover a conspiracy. And sometimes the people who claim the government is listening in to their conversations are right.

Let's take a look.

If someone were to tell you that the governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States had worked together to build a worldwide system for monitoring every bit of electronic communication on Earth - phone calls, faxes, radio, e-mail, and even satellite transmissions - you'd say he was nuts. It's straight out of the latest edition of Government Conspiracies and You.

But it happens to be true.

If someone were to tell you that your office color laser printer might including a secret, hidden code on every piece of paper - a code that the police could use to trace it back to you - you'd say he was nuts.

It also happens to be true.

Can they hear you now?

Meet Echelon. It's been described as "the largest signals intelligence and analysis network for intercepting electronic communications in history." With estimates saying it intercepts three billion messages a day, it's hard to argue with that description.

Echelon is run by the world's English-speaking democracies, which banded together during World War II to share intelligence. When the Cold War started, they started Echelon.

Back then it focused on spying on the Soviets' signals. Today it's used ostensibly to track terrorists and drug dealers, although there have been other uses - a former CIA director said it was used to spy on foreign companies and prove they were using bribes to win contracts.

Here's how it works. Each of the Echelon member countries is responsible for monitoring a different region of the world. The U.S. handles Central and South America as well as most of Asia, including China. Canada keeps tabs on the northern parts of the old Soviet Union. Britain handles Europe and Africa. Australia listens to the Pacific Rim countries. New Zealand takes care of the western Pacific Ocean.

You can even find a nifty map of Echelon stations from the good folks at GlobalSecurity.org (be prepared, the page is in English but the map at the bottom is in German).

These countries maintain monitoring stations and satellites that listen in on every possible frequency, funneling all those transmissions to computers that search for certain words and phrases in the "Echelon Dictionaries." Those computers are networked, so everyone is sharing with everyone else.

Write the wrong thing in an e-mail, and someone might notice.

So in theory, nothing is said in a phone conversation or sent in an e-mail that couldn't picked up by Echelon.

You might think to avoid the watchful eye of The Man by, say, sticking to paper. But you'd be wrong.

Dot matrix

I remember an episode of, I think, one of the Law and Orders. In it, detectives had a printed page and needed to find the source. So they looked closely at the paper using Special TV Detective Tools and found the serial number of the printer hidden on the paper. A call to the printer maker led them to the office that owned it.

I make fun of technology on TV all the time; I especially love when they "zoom and enhance" on a photo so they can make out a license plate shot with a cheap cellphone camera from a mile away.

Naturally, I attributed this hidden serial number to Hollywood writers gone amok.

I was wrong.

Although your printer manufacturer doesn't tell you about this, color laser printers these days routinely print the serial number of the printer on every page that comes out in almost-invisible yellow ink. They do this at the behest of the Secret Service, which wants to track counterfeiters.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation uncovered this, and found these coded dots on pages from lots of printers from Brother, Canon, Dell, Epson, HP, Kyocera, Lanier, Lexmark, Ricoh, Savin, Tektronix, and Xerox. (You need a blue light and magnifier to see the tiny dots.)

The Xerox folks told the EFF that the dots could only be decoded by the Secret Service. That turns out not to be the case. The EFF itself was able to decode the Xerox pattern; it shows the date and time the printout was made as well as the printer's serial number. (The EFF even kindly put up a program that lets Xerox DocuColor owners decode it for themselves.

What's the big deal? As EFF's Seth Schoen put it, the fact that the EFF could decode the dot patterns "suggests that other people may be reading it."

Which means that it could soon be impossible to print an anonymous flyer - something that rebellious groups, including our own Founding Fathers, were always able to do. Anonymity is a cornerstone of freedom.

What's particularly troubling is that these printer companies never told anyone this was being done. Nor are they required by law to do so. They simply began stamping every one of your documents with a code traceable to the printer you used, without your knowledge, at the government's request.

(Amusingly, Schoen told me that he was first able to confirm the existence of these dots by using Xerox's customer-service Web page and, well, asking.)

And scientists at Purdue are -working on expanding the technology to ink jets as well.

So imagine you print up a flyer decrying what you think are a local politician's lies. He doesn't like it, so he asks his friend in the police department to identify the printer used. His friend discovers it's an HP DeskJet 123 with the serial number A173451K and that the document was printed on November 5, 2005 at 11:11 a.m. The police contact HP, which could potentially identify you if you sent in the warranty card).

Bye-bye, anonymity. Bye-bye, privacy.

As Schoen points out, although no one has yet shown that inkjets also print hidden codes, "The technology has been more or less invented," he said, "The question is, has it been deployed anywhere and how would we know?"

Indeed.


Copyright 2005, USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.