Is Your Printer Spying on You?

Your printer is spying on you, you say? Uh huh. Right. Sounds like you may be suffering from a deficiency of niacin, buddy.

That was our reaction when we started to get suggestions from readers to do an article about the way the government spies on us through our color printers. Clearly, these are the delusions of a paranoid bunch of crackpots! They must be related to the chap who once encountered our trusty legal eagle in the Commonplace Fun Facts Legal Department.

Christmas brings out the best in everyone. It even gets lawyers right in the place where most people have a heart. Recently, having just returned from his favorite holiday activity of going door to door, telling children there is no Santa Claus, our chief legal officer sat down with a steaming mug of warm blood and appeared — for the moment, anyway — pleasant and approachable. He regaled our interns with stories of his days as a prosecutor. They sat in rapt attention — largely because of the heretofore unknown spectacle of a lawyer smiling at a time that he wasn’t pulling the wings off of butterflies — as he recalled his encounters with various kooks, freaks, and ne’er-do-wells.

One, in particular, caught our attention. It was a man who wanted to bring charges against Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak for spying on him and transmitting unwanted messages into his head. The chap was odd but harmless. He was told to put aluminum foil in his hat, and that should put an end to Sajak’s scheming. He left the courthouse, and everyone assumed that was the last they would hear of him.

About a month later, the man was back. This time, he wasn’t able to get past the front desk and the metal detector. No, he wasn’t carrying a weapon. the problem was his attire. He was wrapped, head-to-toe, in aluminum foil and bore a striking resemblance to the Tin Woodsman from The Wizard of Oz. Apparently that nefarious Wheel of Fortune host was so intent on controlling his thoughts that a mere foil hatband was woefully inadequate.

What happened next, we may never know. Our attorney became distracted by the sound of approaching Christmas carolers and rushed to the rooftop to make sure his cauldron of oil was boiling.

We share this story for two reasons. First, to show the safe, proper way to approach a lawyer in captivity. Secondly, to show that certain claims and behaviors are so outlandish that it only makes sense to write them off as the quirks of a crackpot.

So you can’t blame us for replying to all of the claims about government espionage through office equipment with, “Thank you, but have you considered trying aluminum foil?”

HOWEVER…. Would you believe that the government is actually spying on you through your color printer? Before you repeat our mistake of dismissing the claims, take a look at this fascinating — and admittedly creepy — marriage of technology and government control.

In 2017, the online news site The Intercept reported information from a classified National Security Agency (NSA) report. FBI agents showed up at The Intercept’s offices to try to track down the person or persons who leaked a top-secret document. The document appeared to have been printed at a secure location and smuggled out. If law enforcement could figure out where it was printed, the perpetrator would be easier to identify.

The investigation led the FBI to government contractor Reality Leigh Winner in Augusta, Georgia. During interrogation, Winner admitted printing the classified document and sending it to The Intercept. She was charged with unlawful possession and distribution of classified material.

The affidavit filed by investigators disclosed that creases in the paper of the classified document led them to the conclusion it had been printed on-site and smuggled out. When the document was published online, however, some eagle-eyed observers noticed something that made them suspect the FBI had a bit more than creases on paper to guide them to the scene of the crime.

When magnified, the document revealed yellow dots in a roughly rectangular pattern repeated throughout the page. Barely visible to the naked eye, the dots were evident under the right lighting or when enlarged. They formed a coded design. It didn’t take much decoding to figure out what message the dots were sending. They revealed the date and time that the pages in question were printed: 06:20 on May 9, 2017. They also showed the serial number for the printer.

The dots — known as “microdots” — are a feature in color printers and copiers that has been known to industry insiders but have not gained a lot of publicity. In the case of Reality Winner, neither the FBI nor the Justice Department has said microdots aided them in solving the case. Among those in the know, however, microdots are an open secret.

Security researcher Rob Graham was one of the early observers to notice the microdots. He published an article explaining how to identify and decode them. Based on their positions when plotted against a grid, they denote specific hours, minutes, dates, and numbers. Several security experts who decoded the dots came up with the same print time and date.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has published a list of color printers known to use them. The image below, captured by the EFF, demonstrate how to decode them:

Printer microdot secret code

Microdots serve purposes beyond spying. If, for example, someone presents you with a document purportedly from 2010, the microdots are a good way to verify the claim.

There are no laws prohibiting microdot encoding. If you are in the business of using your color printer or copier for less-than-honorable purposes, you may want to think again. As a public service, we humbly suggest you turn your energies and talents toward something you don’t have to be ashamed of. If you are intent upon doing something morally ambiguous, you can always consider politics or a career in Hollywood.

If, despite our pleas, you insist upon breaking the law, you probably ought to stick to black-and-white printers. Or you can learn from the example of the world’s worst counterfeiter, who was incredibly incompetent, but still managed to elude investigators for a decade.

As for us, we have no problems with our copiers or printers and use them with a clear conscience. Now if we could just get over the nagging suspicion that our can opener is talking about us behind our backs….

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