Still Seeing Yellow

Seeing Yellow seems to have encouraged hundreds of people to contact their printer manufacturers and complain about tracking dots. Lots of reports (like this one) are popping up on blogs and being sent to me in email. There are reports in upcoming magazines. And as far as I know, nobody has been visited by the US Secret Service yet.

I spent half an hour on the phone with HP. I filed a technical support request about the yellow dots and had to speak with the engineer for a while before I was able to convince him that this was definitely not a malfunctioning printer. He checked out while on the phone with me and seemed to be genuinely shocked and concerned. He said he would talk to the other technical support people in the color laser group and would write up a report to send up the chain of command. I even had him promise not to turn me into the Secret Service.

Please, lets keep the calls coming! We really are making a difference.

Another thing people might do is call laser printer manufacturers before they buy a printer and talk to sales representatives. Demand an assurance that the printer they sell you will not surreptitiously print intentionally identifiable information. Explain that you will buy from the first printer manufacturer who can give you such an assurance. So far, no company has.

I was thinking about how it was slightly funny that Brother prints tracking dots in their color laser printers. One might say that tracking dots are courtesy of Big Brother, and Big HP, and Big Toshiba, and Big Xerox, and all the other big printer color laser printer manufacturers.

10 Replies to “Still Seeing Yellow”

  1. Where can we get small updates of the campaign, like this one, as progress happens? I’d love to follow; this post was quite amusing!

  2. Jordi: Updates will be on this blog or on

    Cate: Yes, only color and only on color laser printers. Black and white or color on an inkjet has no dots that we know about.

    Zooko: That’s a great idea!

  3. “This is a direct attack on the privacy of the owners and users of printers, and in particular, on their right to free, anonymous speech.” 

    I do believe that I have a right to free speech; do I have a right to anonymous free speech?

    Or, to look at less philosophically:

    When I was a boy, I remember reading a Hardy Boys adventure.  There was an incident in which the bad guys scraped their car against something and got away, but no one saw the licence plate.  Fortunately, the police were able to take samples of the scraped paint, and track down the year and model of the car, because auto manufacturers added special compounds to the paint to aid in identification.

    How would special identifiers from printers differ from special identifiers in paint?  Or from licence plates, for that matter?

    Isn’t the real problem not whether the Secret Service can identify whether a piece of paper comes from a specific printer, but how they use that information; not the potential, but the abuse when it does occur?  The ability to link pages of text to specific typewriters allowed the Stasi to persecute playwrights, but it also allowed the FBI to prosecute gangsters.  If there were no socially positive uses of a technology then we’d be wise to shun it, but if (like most things) it has positive and negative uses, then the important thing is to set up safeguards against abuse.

    I’m not trying to be particularly argumentative here.  I’m no expert on privacy and technology issues, so I’d sincerely appreciate a reasoned response to my questions.  Feel free to post a link to a good essay explaining why yellow dots are such a problem.

  4. “Feel free to post a link to a good essay explaining why yellow dots are such a problem.”

    That’s like saying, “feel free to post a link to a good essay explaining why your phone shouldn’t be monitored.”

    And yes, of course we should have the right to free, anonymous speech. Don’t you agree?

  5. Well, as a Canadian, there’s no American law preventing the NSA from monitoring every phone call I make, and I doubt they care much what Canadian law says.  Can’t say I’m thrilled about it, but it doesn’t keep me up at night either.

    But let’s make some other phone comparisons.  If they can convince a judge they have cause, the police can get a warrant and tap my phones.  Or, as Law & Order shows in every episode, they can just phone up the local phone company and learn what calls I’ve made, without a warrant.  Those protocols meet my expectation of privacy, and I think they probably do a lot more good than bad for society (at least with the police force in my country). 

    Do yellow dots do more good than bad?  I’ve never heard of any cases where they’ve been used either positively or negatively, so I don’t know.

    If you want to tell me to go away and read Locke,  or Mill, or Rawls, that’s perfectly reasonable.  I don’t know what any of them would say about rights to anonymous speech, and it would be presumptuous of me to ask for an explanation from basic principles in the comments of this blog.

  6. M. Grégoire,

    I like the requirements for warrants that you mention because they add “checks and balances” to a system that has a high potential for abuse.

    The tracking dots are readable not only to the government but to everybody who understands or can decode the dots. The FF Did this reasonably easil with the Xerox code at least. Even if did not oppose government monitoring or your printing, you might not be as thrilled with giving everyone else the same ability or a good shot at it.

    Another important difference is that you know about the what and when and how governments can and can’t tap your phones. People do not have similar ideas about how their print outs are tracked because they have not been given the details on this. The dots were secretly placed in their printers and the government is being very quiet about the whole situation.

  7. “If you want to tell me to go away and read Locke,  or Mill, or Rawls, that’s perfectly reasonable.  I don’t know what any of them would say about rights to anonymous speech”

    If one is prevented from speaking anonymously, free speech is not. In some situations, the only realistic way to combat oppression is through anonymous speech. I’m not saying one should not consider what Locke, Mill or Rawls has to say, though the right to anonymous free speech is pretty straightforward. Ideally, one would wish not to speak anonymously. Often, being straightforward with your identity is much more powerful. However, there are situations in this world where speaking without care for one’s own identity can lead to an immediate silencing via jail/death.

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