Feeds

Secret printer ID codes may breach EU privacy laws

Commissioner has a mull

Top 5 reasons to deploy VMware with Tegile

A little-noticed system that allows printed documents to be tracked by government agents has gotten the attention of the EU Commissioner for Justice Freedom and Security, who says the technology may violate EU human rights guarantees.

The technology is baked in to many popular color laser printers and photocopiers, including those made by Brother, Canon, Xerox and HP, according to this list compiled by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It embeds almost invisible tracking dots onto documents that uniquely identify the machine that printed them.

The enables the tracking of currency counterfeiters, but the EFF has been warning for years there's nothing that prevents government spooks from using them for broader types of surveillance. Those concerns have at last found a home with Commissioner Franco Frattini.

"To the extent that individuals may be identified through material printed or copied using certain equipment, such processing may give rise to the violation of fundamental human rights, namely the right to privacy and private life," he wrote (Microsoft Word document here) last month in response to a question about the legality of the system. "It also might violate the right to protection of personal data."

Applicable EU documents include Article 8 of the Convention of Human Rights, which provides for the protection of personal data, and Article 7 of the Fundamental Freedoms and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which ensures the protection of private and family life, home and communication, he said. Directive 95/46/EC of Parliament and of the Council of 24 October 1995 also apply.

Frattini stopped short of saying the practice violates any laws at either a national or Community level. That's because the inquiry, which was filed by EU Member for Finland Satu Hassi, didn't include information showing the tracking dots were being used to identify individuals.

Frattini's answer appears to bolster the EFF opinion that the technology unnecessarily opens the door to human rights abuses, throughout the world.

"If you widen this out to authoritarian regimes, this becomes a far more pernicious threat," said Danny O'Brien, the international O\outreach co-ordinator at the EFF, who worries that Chinese authorities might use it to crack down on dissidents. "If you're running off some leaflets that the Chinese government doesn't like the look of, the fact that they can trace you to a particular suburb or printer shop is a far more damaging result."

It's unclear what practical effect Frattini's words may have. While O'Brien says the EU has the power to control imports, he doesn't see much chance of a ban on printers that use the tracking technology. Nonetheless, he says the opinion could provide leverage for European officials trying to end the practice. According to the EFF, printer manufacturers added the technology at the direction of the US government, most likely the Secret Service.

"This becomes a diplomatic issue more that anything else," he said. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

More from The Register

next story
'Kim Kardashian snaps naked selfies with a BLACKBERRY'. *Twitterati gasps*
More alleged private, nude celeb pics appear online
Home Depot ignored staff warnings of security fail laundry list
'Just use cash', former security staffer warns friends
Hackers pop Brazil newspaper to root home routers
Step One: try default passwords. Step Two: Repeat Step One until success
UK.gov lobs another fistful of change at SME infosec nightmares
Senior Lib Dem in 'trying to be relevant' shocker. It's only taxpayers' money, after all
Who.is does the Harlem Shake
Blame it on LOLing XSS terroristas
Snowden, Dotcom, throw bombs into NZ election campaign
Claim of tapped undersea cable refuted by Kiwi PM as Kim claims extradition plot
Freenode IRC users told to change passwords after securo-breach
Miscreants probably got in, you guys know the drill by now
THREE QUARTERS of Android mobes open to web page spy bug
Metasploit module gobbles KitKat SOP slop
BitTorrent's peer-to-peer chat app Bleep goes live as public alpha
A good day for privacy as invisble.im also reveals its approach to untraceable chats
prev story

Whitepapers

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops
Balancing user privacy and privileged access, in accordance with compliance frameworks and legislation. Evaluating any potential remote control choice.
Intelligent flash storage arrays
Tegile Intelligent Storage Arrays with IntelliFlash helps IT boost storage utilization and effciency while delivering unmatched storage savings and performance.
WIN a very cool portable ZX Spectrum
Win a one-off portable Spectrum built by legendary hardware hacker Ben Heck
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.