Yellow Dots of Mystery: Is Your Printer Spying on You?

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Imagine that every time you print a document, it automatically includes a secret code that could be used to identify the printer -- and, potentially, the person who used it. Sounds like something from a spy movie, right?

Unfortunately, the scenario isn't fictional. Most color laser printers and color copiers are designed to print invisible tracking codes across every single printed page of their output. These codes reveal which machine produced a document and, in some cases, when the document was printed or copied.

In this instructable, we'll describe three different ways to see the tracking dots your printer produces: with a blue light, with a microscope, or with a scanner. If you don't have the necessary equipment for a particular step, go on to the next one.

For further information, or to share your findings, please visit us at http://www.eff.org/issues/printers.

Want to help? Download test sheets at http://www.eff.org/wp/investigating-machine-identification-code-technology-color-laser-printers#help

Step 1: Print a Page With Text/graphics


Print out a page from a color laser printer. The page should use color and have some text or graphics on it. You can find a list of printers that we know print tracking dots at our website.

As you're looking for the dots, keep in mind that they're printed in a regularly repeating pattern across the entire page (not just in the corner of the page), and will be intermixed with other printed data.

Step 2: Blue Light (w/ Unaided Eye) Method


You'll need a blue light for this method. EFF has blue LED lights available, or you can get a blue LED flashlight or any other strong blue light from any other source. An ordinary battery-powered blue LED will work.

Turn off all the lights, and eliminate as much ambient light as possible. Shine a blue LED light on the blank part of the printed page. As examining a printer page under blue light improves the contrast, the yellow dots should appear black.

If you have good close-range vision, you should then be able to see them easily. They might initially look like small flecks of dirt or dust. If you can't see the dots this way, check to be sure that your printer is known to produce them, and try asking a friend to have a look.

Step 3: Scanner Method


Scan your printed page on a color flatbed scanner at 600 dpi; this makes the dots visible in the scanned image. Modifying the scanner isn't necessary, since it already has a blue light.

The dots can be seen easily by enlarging the scanned image, or by performing a color separation in software and examining the blue channel. A wide variety of image-processing software can perform color separations.

Here are two ways of examining the blue channel with free/open source software:

1. In GIMP, go to Layers, then Channels, then Paths. In the channels tab, deselect the Red and Green channels.

2. With ImageMagick, run the following command at a command line (represented here by the $ prompt):

  $ convert -channel RG -fx 0 scan.tiff blue.png

This creates a new image blue.png containing only the blue channel.

You can also try converting to greyscale, by mapping the blue channel's value to intensity:
with ImageMagick, run the following command:

  $ convert --fx b scan.tiff grey.png

You can also do this interactively in Python if you have the Python Imagining Library (PIL) installed. From a Python prompt, run

  >>> import Image  >>> Image.open(scan.tiff).split()[2].show()

to see a greyscale image formed from the blue channel's intensity.

PIL can also help enhance the contrast. For instance, you can try the following to sharpen the color contrast between the dots and the page:

  >>> import Image  >>> blue = Image.open(scan.tiff).split()[2]  >>> blue.point(lambda x: (256-x)**2).show()

Step 4: Magnifying Glass or Microscope Method


Place the printed page under a microscope or look at it through a magnifying glass (ideally with a magnification of 10x or more). Even under normal ambient light, the dots are easy to see. We tried two USB computer microscopes (DigitalBlue and Dino-Lite), but any kind of microscope should work.

Step 5: Now What?


Now that you've seen the dots, what can you do?

  • Learn more. Visit us online at http://www.eff.org/issues/printers/.
  • Show your friends. Despite repeated media interest -- and limited acknowledgments by printer companies -- the existence of yellow tracking dots and similar digital fingerprints is still a complete surprise to almost everyone. Some people even express skepticism that these tracking techniques really exist. You can help spread the word just by showing your friends that the dots are there.
  • Send EFF your print samples EFF is continuing to collect sample output from color laser printers to help our research. You can download a PDF file from our web site, print test sheets on your color laser printer, and send them to us in the mail.
  • Contact manufacturers via the Seeing Yellow site. It's outrageous that manufacturers make secret deals to compromise our privacy. What's worse, some printer companies have assumed that people who object must be counterfeiters. The Seeing Yellow project from the MIT Media Lab is helping individuals get in touch with printer companies to express privacy concerns and ask the companies to turn off the tracking and stop building surveillance features into communication technology. You can find contact information for your printer manufacturer -- or manufacturers of devices you're considering purchasing. http://www.seeingyellow.com
  • Join EFF to support our work on privacy, anonymity, and free speech issues at the intersection of law and technology. http://www.eff.org/support

Special thanks to the California Consumer Protection Foundation for funding the project.

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    193 Discussions

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    LaurenW85

    4 months ago

    wow! I feel like this is from a Nancy Drew book!

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    AdamK212

    1 year ago

    Data outdated.

    to see in Gimp, use from an image menu: Windows → Dockable Dialogs → Channels; then deselect red and green.
    A better way however is to

    Install this script into Gimp
    http://registry.gimp.org/node/623

    Using these details
    http://www.wikihow.com/Install-Scripts-Into-Gimp

    Then close Gimp to reboot it and open it to load the new script.

    Then scan a color image of something printed out (make sure image has 3 colors to trigger the metadots) at 600DPI (change scan settings of printer, they may not show at the default 300DPI)

    load the scan into Gimp, Next select

    Filters. "Filters->Politics" and click ''Show yellow tracking dots''

    image will apply filter and show metadots.

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    charlieb000shadowman2

    Reply 2 years ago

    I saw on a CSI-like program they said printers put a unique code on the sheet, the prop that they used (from a B&W printer) had a tiny line nearer to a corner of the sheet. i looked for such a line on my prints but never found it... so maybe they do, maybe they dont, either that or the B&W printer has a high DPI so that the dots over the sheet are too small, or maybe the dots are now encoded into the way the printer renders shades of grey/colour (called dithering) - which might be present on printers you have previously thought were OK.

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    shadowman2charlieb000

    Reply 2 years ago

    Geez man, thanks for the reply, but my above comment is 7 years old, I even forgot what instructables was.

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    spitfireapshadowman2

    Reply 1 year ago

    You know that these comment posts also help other readers looking for info. A reply to an 8 year old post may help someone else, it's not just for you.

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    SeanP45

    2 years ago

    So, for simple text, wouldn't printing with a yellow background obscure the code to the point that it couldn't be detected?

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    alex_the_creator

    3 years ago

    It's the illuminati, I told them, they never listened. I also don't trust toasters, they probably put crazy tracking sh*t in them too.

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    devicemodder

    3 years ago on Introduction

    what's with all the bots here? their accounts advertise insurance and cruise websites. they are the ones with single word comments and comment the same stuff on other 'ibles.

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    cobbledbeard

    4 years ago on Introduction

    his is wrong in so many ways and quite disturbing as well come to think of it...