It appears that the government can look at documents produced by many color printers, and determine the time and date that the document was produced, as well as the serial number of the printer that the document was printed on. Doesn't that make you happy you sent in the product registration card? By the way, there are no laws that would prevent the printer manufacturer from handing over the registration information to the government upon request. "Request" here, by the way, means just that. Request. Not subpoena, not court order. Just "request".
The research that has lead to this discovery was conducted by the cyber-rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, and their report can be found here. They are continuing to collect information from various printers, but have already succeeded in cracking one of the codes used - it was so tough to crack, so secure, it took their intern a whole week to figure it out. If you think this is crazy, join the crowd. If you think this couldn't possibly be the case, and that the folks at EFF have suffered mass paranoia, read the Washington Post story on this, which includes confirmations from both IBM and the Secret Service.
Here's the quote from the Secret Service:
"It's strictly a countermeasure to prevent illegal activity specific to counterfeiting," agency spokesman Eric Zahren said. "It's to protect our currency and to protect people's hard-earned money."
Here are the excuses given by some of the involved companies:
Xerox spokesman Bill McKee confirmed the existence of the hidden codes, but he said the company was simply assisting an agency that asked for help. McKee said the program was part of a cooperation with government agencies, competing manufacturers and a "consortium of banks," but would not provide further details. HP said in a statement that it is involved in anti-counterfeiting measures and supports the cooperation between the printer industry and those who are working to reduce counterfeiting.
What pisses me off about the situation - and it should piss you off, too - is this: this was done, and has apparently been done for a long time now, without the knowledge of the vast majority of people using the printers. The government, banks, and big business went and put together a set of measures to protect their own interests. These measures involve a technology with chilling implications both here and in other countries - especially those with repressive governments and no civil rights protections. The measures were put in place to make life easier for the banks, businesses, and law enforcement, and they were put in place without the knowledge of the public.
If the printers that we buy stamp identifying information on every page that they spit out, this is something that we sure as hell had the right to know. We also sure as hell had the right to participate in an open discussion of this policy, its implications, and the possible costs and benefits associated with it. We definitely should have been able to take part in the discussions in order to ensure that our own interests were being looked after here, not just the interests of the goverment and corporations.
Of course, had we been informed about this from the start, that might not have worked so well for the government and corporations. We might have rebelled at the concept. We might have demanded that some sort of unreasonable privacy protections - like legal due process - be put into place to protect our right to privacy. We might not have purchased printers with that "feature". Doing an end run around the public was definitely the convenient thing for the feds, the banks, and the printer manufacturers to do.
It just wasn't the right thing.
This situation screams for an investigation. Who made these decisions? What the f--k do they think gave them the right to make those decisions without informing the public? Who in the government was involved in setting this up? What people at what levels of the government knew about this, and what gave them the delusion that they had the right to leave the public in the dark?
Most importantly, are there any other little surprises out there that we haven't been deemed worthy of knowing?