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Big Brother Is Tracking Your Ass
November 22, 2004 2:59 PM   Subscribe

Ever copy your ass on the office copier? According to experts, several printer companies quietly encode the serial number and the manufacturing code of their color laser printers and color copiers on every document those machines produce.
posted by mr_crash_davis (43 comments total)

 
I'm reverting to printing black and white on red, green and blue transparancies.
posted by NewBornHippy at 3:05 PM on November 22, 2004


Funny and scary. It's a two-fer!
posted by dash_slot- at 3:09 PM on November 22, 2004


So, I guess as long as they don't record MY serial number, I'm OK?
posted by 327.ca at 3:12 PM on November 22, 2004


Ahh, but they'll never prove it was my ass....
posted by jalexei at 3:13 PM on November 22, 2004


'tis true. As a former Kinko's monkey I was told it was to assist in tracking fake money, ID and other goodies to particular outlets.
posted by FlamingBore at 3:14 PM on November 22, 2004


Ahh, but they'll never prove it was my ass....

Beat you to it. ;-)
posted by 327.ca at 3:14 PM on November 22, 2004


I work for one of those companies as it happens. It's all about anti-counterfeiting, but the technology has some other uses. Someone still needs to catch you doing it, unless the machine is yours alone to use. Consider avoiding distinctive butt tattoos ;)

Part of the design process in my company includes the weight limit for the scanner, particularly for non-desktop machines. You can put a million warning stickers on them but everyone knows that eventually someone is going to sit on it (it's a piece of glass, folks, think about it).
posted by tommasz at 3:22 PM on November 22, 2004


It would be funny if they could "tattoo" the serial number on the original.
posted by cairnish at 3:43 PM on November 22, 2004


You can put a million warning stickers on them but everyone knows that eventually someone is going to sit on it (it's a piece of glass, folks, think about it).

Ha ha. Too funny. I wonder what the emergency room statistics are. Thanks for keeping the butt copying public, the veritable umm..."backbone" of this nation, safe Tommasz. I salute you and your fine work!
posted by Skygazer at 3:43 PM on November 22, 2004


Yellow dot encoding is also used in several new currencies in what's come to be known as the Eurion Constellation (PDF as HTML), so-called because of both its use on the Euro and its similarity to the Orion constellation. The pattern can be seen on the back of the new $20 "disguised" as little 20's scattered about seemingly at random.

The pattern is used by scanners and photo editing software (most notably Photoshop CS) to quickly and reliably identify currency. Of course, it can also be printed on any document whatsoever to make life hell for anyone wanting to scan it or open it in Photoshop CS.
posted by odinsdream at 3:47 PM on November 22, 2004


327.ca & jalexei
Not so fast. I hear there's an IPO coming out on NASDAQ for Asscertain--a leader in tush recognition technology.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 3:54 PM on November 22, 2004


YELLOW DOT QUESTION: Does each yellow dot contain an entire microscopic serial number or is the identifier in the combination of the of dots? I couldn't tell from the story.
posted by HifiToaster at 3:54 PM on November 22, 2004


I think it'd pretty much have to be the combination of dots. So far as I know no ink jet printer will print at a resolution high enough to put the whole serial number in a microdot. Especially considering how paper wicks ink.
posted by sotonohito at 4:04 PM on November 22, 2004


Isn't the first linked item a derivation of SNL's Xerox Assjet 790? I think the episode had Stallone as a guest, around '97 or '98.
posted by clockzero at 4:07 PM on November 22, 2004


Xerox's PARC research center did something they called DataGlyphs, but they look fairly large.

All printers have characteristic motion defects that allow investigators to determine the make/model and perhaps in the future, even the exact printer for a given document.
posted by tommasz at 5:04 PM on November 22, 2004


If you own a copier that doesn't put the serial number on each copy, you can purchase a retrofitting kit.
posted by jeffmik at 5:30 PM on November 22, 2004


That's fascinating, odinsdream. I'd noticed the tiny yellow 20s, of course (they look like numeric locusts assaulting the White House to me), but I'd never imagined that their very pattern was a counterfeit-protection method.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:32 PM on November 22, 2004


Ahh, but they'll never prove it was my ass....

What about the fingerprints?
posted by jonmc at 5:41 PM on November 22, 2004


"...to make life hell for anyone wanting to scan it or open it in Photoshop CS."

Good thing I still have all my Photoshop install disc sets going back to version 4.0! (I did throw out the manuals, but I have all the CDs.) And yes, I did pay for all of them.

:D
posted by zoogleplex at 5:51 PM on November 22, 2004


What about the fingerprints?

Mine or hers? Oh, nevermind...
posted by jalexei at 5:52 PM on November 22, 2004


What about the fingerprints?

Mine or hers?

And yes, I did pay for all of them.

With COUNTERFEIT MONEY, I'll wager!
posted by jalexei at 5:54 PM on November 22, 2004


oooops
posted by jalexei at 5:54 PM on November 22, 2004


MetaFilter: What about the fingerprints?
posted by edgeways at 6:16 PM on November 22, 2004


Faint of Butt, did you make up that handle just for this post?
posted by telstar at 6:22 PM on November 22, 2004


I have a Xerox 2060 in my office. If you look at a printout under a loupe, you'll see what appears to be a superfine dusting of yellow toner on every printout. Interesting.
posted by bucko at 6:22 PM on November 22, 2004


Faint of Butt, did you make up that handle just for this post?

Very funny. :) No, it's just a Homestar Runner reference. QV my profile for details.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:50 PM on November 22, 2004


Want to double your fun?

Photocopy lots of older bills on a colour copier. Be sure to have the company's technician coming the next day. Otherwise you will be out a copier. Don't forget that you can't just do it once and give up!

HAND. Oh, and when you get fired, you should probably hand back the copies. You don't want to go to jail or nothing.

Also, this is very old news.

BTW: My colour laser doesn't do it. Ahhh, the benefits of 15 year old technology.

Enjoy this.
posted by shepd at 6:54 PM on November 22, 2004


Oh, and last but not least, it is generally impossible to scan older bills with new scanner software, and also generally impossible to save imasges of such bills, too.

I new my scanget 6100c + SANE would come in handy. Ooo yeah.

Some software supports the 75% squashing requirement for legitimate "samples", though.
posted by shepd at 7:00 PM on November 22, 2004


shepd, what is the make and model of your printer? If anyone has a list of hardware that isn't unnecessarily hindered by being unwilling to either print or scan currency, I'd like to see it.
posted by odinsdream at 7:11 PM on November 22, 2004


When it comes to butt reproduction, I'm a bit of a luddite.
posted by madamjujujive at 7:36 PM on November 22, 2004


How is it, again, that this has already been implemented in photocopiers but not yet in ammunition?
posted by Songdog at 7:38 PM on November 22, 2004


If I make a bunch of "blank" copies on such a copier and then put those pages into another copier and make copies, will I then get a document with two serial numbers or an unreadable serial number?
posted by gluechunk at 7:39 PM on November 22, 2004


shepd, what is the make and model of your printer?

HP LaserJet Color. Yes. Just that. No numbers or anything.

The output is terrible enough you'd be stupid to use it for money, though. :-D

I'm assuming it's not encumbered, anyways, being that it was built around 1994 or so, and it doesn't use a Xerox engine, and before a lot of this anti-counterfeit technology was cheap enough to just stuff in for the hell of it.

I suppose to back that up I'll have to test it. No, not print money, but see if the dots are there. I really doubt it, though.
posted by shepd at 7:52 PM on November 22, 2004


When it comes to butt reproduction, I'm a bit of a luddite.

Me too. I use a pant-o-graph.
posted by undecided at 8:04 PM on November 22, 2004


what type of toner does that thing take? metamucil?
posted by Hands of Manos at 8:06 PM on November 22, 2004


Soooo...could we use this to figure out where those fake 60 Minutes memos came from? I'd love to live through that again and again.
posted by paul_smatatoes at 8:56 PM on November 22, 2004


How is this any different than watermarks? Most (if not all) commercial photo/digital imaging software embed watermarks in all the images modified and/or created using their software.

This information is not only used to determine whether the software used is legit, but it's also possible to determine if an original photograph has been modified by another person prior to publication.

Also, have you ever used a commercial copier? I mean, wow, the sheer volume of paper printed is monumental (even in small businesses). Something like this would require incredibly powerful device search techniques, and given the complexity of the data stored (limited disk space in these devices) I seriously question whether this is something to "worry about". IMO, it's just another level of logging that is present in any hardware or software based product on the market today.
posted by purephase at 9:07 PM on November 22, 2004


This is profound.
posted by troutfishing at 9:27 PM on November 22, 2004


I wonder if one could obliterate the watermark by printing everything with a yellow background? (Of course you couldn't print money)
posted by Sir Mildred Pierce at 9:33 PM on November 22, 2004


Happily, no, I have not.
posted by echodolphin at 9:43 PM on November 22, 2004


"The only time any information is gained from these documents is purely in [the case of] a criminal act"

so does this mean they'll be adding another angle to the mug shot?
posted by three blind mice at 2:13 AM on November 23, 2004


and given the complexity of the data stored (limited disk space in these devices) I seriously question whether this is something to "worry about". IMO, it's just another level of logging that is present in any hardware or software based product on the market today.

What data are you talking about, the serial numbers and their associated locations/owners? If so, this is extremely trivial to store with current technology and capacity. If you're instead talking about something else (which seems possible given your reference to "these devices"), like the copier's storage capacity, I'm not sure you understood the technology described. I don't mean to be insulting, but the technology does not store your document in the copier, or anything like that. The copier prints its own constant serial number on each print it makes in the form of a microscopic "barcode," of sorts. This doesn't require storage space in the copier, or anything like that.

When you send in that warranty registration card with the copier's serial number on it, this is where the link would occur (that, or as it's sold to you for anything other than cash at a retail location).

So, sorry if I misunderstood you.
posted by odinsdream at 6:58 AM on November 23, 2004


Lorelei Pagano, a counterfeiting specialist with the U.S. Secret Service, stresses that the government uses the embedded serial numbers only when alerted to a forgery. "The only time any information is gained from these documents is purely in [the case of] a criminal act," she says.

I'm certain, Ms. Pagano. But ideas like these -- begun with the greatest intentions -- get abused daily. (How many routine crimes and investigations have been "justified" under the Patriot Act so far, for example? How many employees at the IRS have perused personal information without warrant?)

If people feel threatened, it's for a good reason: Scumbags who manage to weasel their way into government jobs regularly abuse these systems, using them for purposes other than that for which they were intended -- often at the expense of personal privacy.

The benefit does not outweigh the risk. There are other ways to catch counterfeiters. Go find those methods.

And here's another thought: Printers are "the press," too. This is a First Amendment issue. If I want to print and hand out anti-Bush fliers anonymously, and if I reasonably suspect that I might be traced, doesn't that create sort of a chilling effect on the First Amendment?
posted by Possum at 8:39 AM on November 23, 2004


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