Wednesday, May 23, 2012

FOIA request nets list of manufacturers who "agreed to fill document identification requests submitted by the Secret Service"

Hello dots blog: long time, no see.

I was happy to receive an email today from freelance journalist Theo Karantsalis. Since 2010, he's been trying to get the US Government to fess up about which printer manufacturers they are in cahoots with.

His Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request has finally paid off: the US Secret Service sent him an official list of ten manufacturers that have "fulfilled or agreed to fulfill document identification requests submitted by the Secret Service... using machine identification code technology".

The manufacturers are:

  • Canon
  • Brother
  • Casio
  • Hewlett-Packard
  • Konica
  • Minolta
  • Mita
  • Ricoh
  • Sharp
  • Xerox
In other words, these manufacturers have helped (or have agreed to help, in the future) the US Government identify individuals through the near-invisible secret dot pattern that their colour printers print on every page. Lexmark didn't make the list, even though they have the dot technology enabled. 

For those of you keeping track: the government AND the manufacturers have finally fessed up: "yes, this tracking dot technology is a real thing and we use it". So it's not a secret anymore, right? Well... maybe with all the digital privacy issues these days, paper dots don't get precedence. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Hi, Reddit!

Hi, Reddit - and random people finding this blog long after I've moved on to other projects. I appreciate your interest, comments, and critiques!

As many of you have pointed out, this is an old issue that we, the internet, have had some awareness of for quite some time, well before I started pursuing it in 2008/9. I listed some of these existing projects, including MIT's Seeing Yellow, on my intro post.

The yellow dots issue had been analyzed from a privacy point of view (privacy nuts aren't a fan of it) as well as a technological/encryption point of view (breaking the codes and documenting them). As I became more interested in the issue, I wanted to approach it from the consumer perspective.

What I wanted to know was, what would happen if a consumer persistently kept escalating his or her dissatisfaction with the unadvertised inclusion of this technology in their printer? Could I climb to the very top of the corporate ladder, and what would be the response from the top brass?

My result - after months of climbing the ladder - was a letter from the president of Lexmark Canada saying that I could receive a refund for my printer, if I wanted it. I declined (more accurately, I didn't respond) because - believe it or not - I was just motivated by curiosity and inspired by excellent consumer action sites like Having a letter from the top dog of a printer company saying, "you're right, we do include this tech, do you want a refund?" was my goal. This was a milestone that no one else working on the tracking dots issue had achieved (or written about).

I left the blog online so that you, too can voice your dissatisfaction to Big Print, and possibly pursue refunds and consumer action of your own.


PS. If you liked this consumer action story, you may be interested in the time that TicketMaster extorted $20 from me, and what I did to get it back.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The End of This Story

Hey folks, sorry for the lack of updates - even though I don't think I have any followers! I've been pursuing this initiative since last October and unfortunately, I've run out of steam. I'm making this last post an "official" end to my mini-crusade. 

Before I close off, I want to mention that I've since received two more letters from Lexmark - another response (identical to the previous letter) from Edward Russo in Kentucky (US customer support). I've also received a letter from Tim Emens, President of Lexmark Canada, signed in what appears to be real ink! Unfortuantely, the text was copied word-for-word from the other letters. I imagine the company receives just enough complaints about the forensic dot technology that they've just standardized their response. 

Mr. Emens' letter mentions a name and customer support line for Canada specifically - Suzanne Deland, reachable at 905-763-5544. If I would like to return my printer, she is the one that I am supposed to talk to. A quick Google search doesn't turn up that number, so it's probably a secret executive customer support line! 

I am not going to take Lexmark up on their offer to refund the full purchase price of my printer. The reality is that while the overall issue of privacy of yellow tracking dots still concerns me, I was never fearful of being personally monitored via this technology. I was never dissatisfied with the printer itself, and I fear the process is more time that I can commit at this point. I'm tempted to call and swindle some free toner, but I no longer have the time to commmit to this issue! 

I am happy, however, that I jumped through all of these hoops and produced some consumer-centred documentation on how to pursue manufacturers (or at very least, Lexmark) if you are dissatisfied with the forensic dot technology. 

It's my hope that people can find these pages useful, and that during my five-month consumer rights crusade I contributed something useful to this particular issue. 

Here's a short summary of my most useful learnings:
  1. ALL Lexmark colour laser printers have this tracking dot technology. It's probably accurate to say that any modern colour laser printer you buy will have it as well. 
  2. You CANNOT disable this technology, at least not by any practical means. It's deeply embedded in the hardware of the printer, don't bother trying! 
  3. Entry-level tech support does NOT know that this technology exists. Don't even try to get help from them, though you may end up with free photoconductor
  4. Lexmark Canada and Lexmark International (based in the USA) both have Privacy Offices: 
    Privacy Mailbox
    740 West New Circle Road
    Lexington, Kentucky 40550

    Attention: Privacy Officer Inc.
    50 Leek Crescent
    Richmond Hill, ON
    L4B 4J3
  5. 1-800-663-7662 is a verified and often-not-published phone number for Canadian Support, according to Google it is a link to their Service Dispatch team. 
  6. Suzanne Deland in the Canadian office may be able to help you, if you call 1-905-763-5544. This number doesn't show up on Google or Yahoo. 
  7. If you are persistant, a refund of your printer is definitely possible. You just have to keep poking around until you get in touch with the right people - while I had terrible luck contacting Lexmark by phone, I had excellent luck contacting them by snail mail. 
So, that's it! Good luck with your own consumer battles, and thanks for reading! If you leave me a comment, I can and will respond to it, but I expect this to be my last post on this issue. 

Friday, January 23, 2009

Response from Lexmark RECEIVED!

The Story So Far:

Persistance has paid off - I received a letter from Lexmark in the mail today. Right off the bat, I have to be honest - it's a response to my first letter, dated December 19, 2008. According to two postmarks, it looks like it got lost in the mail once or twice before it finally made its way to my house:

Here's the letter:

The text reads (emphasis added by me):

Dear Brahm, 
Thank you for your inquiry. 

Certain Lexmark color lasers, including the C530dn printer, do print manufacturer and serial number data on printed output. This technology was developed by the color copier industry nearly 20 years ago as a measure to combat the counterfeiting of currency and it continues to be used by many copier and printer companies throughout the world. We do not believe this technology violates any law or infringes any privacy rights

The technology cannot be disabled in your C530dn. We regret that you are unhappy with our product. Under the circumstances, we would be happy to provide a full refund of your purchase cost for this printer. Please contact 1-800-LEXMARK if you would like to return this printer. 

Edward Russo, Lexmark Support Specialist. 

SO. My choices are return the printer for a full refund, or keep pressing the issue. 

To me, the choice is pretty clear. Lexmark stated it pretty plainly in their letter: "you won't find a colour laser printer throughout the world without this technology". 

Though I appreciate the offer of a full refund, I still need a colour laser printer and my privacy concerns have not been adequately addressed - I'm invested in this issue for more than just my personal needs. In the eyes of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, I believe I have fair grounds to submit a complaint, which is what I will start working on in the next few days. 

I'm also going to send Edward a response and see what he meant when he said "certain Lexmark color lasers". If there is a consumer model color laser that does not print forensic tracking dots, I would be much happier with an exchange, and that information would be great for consumers to have. 

Perhaps other Lexmark consumers would be happy with a refund after finding out that their printer is spying on them. If so, I recommend that you write a letter to:

Lexmark Intl. Inc
740W. New Circle Road
Lexington, KY  40550
NA CPD 3rd Level Support
Dept. 5040L51/004-2
C/O Ed Russo

Good luck consumers! I will keep this blog updated as I put together a new letter for Edward. Barring that, it's off to the Privacy Commissioner!  

Sunday, January 11, 2009

No response yet, follow-up letter sent to Privacy Officers, President, CFO of Lexmark

Hello friends, it's the evening of Sunday, January 11th and my consumerist cries have not been heard: Lexmark has not sent me any response to my December 3 inquiry as of this evening! 

I don't expect to receive anything tomorrow, so it is with some regret and a slight pang of excitement that I am dropping my follow-up letter in the mail tomorrow, which differs from the last letter in a few key ways:
  • I've imposed a 30-day timeline for a response;
  • I've specified that the response be sent to my address;
  • I've outlined what happens if I don't get a response - the issue goes to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.
  • I've CC'd the letter to the big-wigs: The President of Lexmark Canada and its Chief Financial Officer, supposedly responsible for legal information. 
Letter (click for big):

At this point I've got to shift gears with my strategy. The fact that I'm a Canadian and that there exists a Canadian headquarters for Lexmark means that they'll be the ones who have to deal with me, not the head office in the States. I'll continue to CC their privacy officer on general letters if I have to keep sending them, but I think I have to focus on communication with the Canadian office. 

While writing letters to presidents of massive corporations is fun in its own respect, I can't lose sight of what this is all about: privacy rights! No one has the right to have the ability to track every document I print and trace it back to me. It's poor business practice to sell products to consumers that violates their right to lead a private life, especially without their knowledge or consent!

Next up: Wait 30 days, see if there's a response. If there is a response, pursue it to the fullest degree. If not, write to the Privacy Commissioner and bring this blog to the attention of as much online media sources as possible. In the interim, traffic won't really do any good. I want to give them a chance to respond before attempting to bring them into the internet spotlight. 

Monday, December 22, 2008

Will I get a response for Christmas?

No updates, nothing to report. It's been 19 days since I mailed my letters, and no word yet...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Letter to Lexmark's Privacy Officer(s)

Having given up on getting a response through telephone support, I composed two identical letters today: I addressed the main one to the Lexmark's Canadian Privacy Officer, and CC'd it to their privacy officer in the States.

It reads:

To Whom It May Concern;

RE: Forensic Tracking Dots on Lexmark Colour Laser Printers

I am writing regarding an issue that has come to my attention regarding Lexmark colour laser printers and forensic tracking dot technology. In late October 2008, I was forwarded information that explained how tracking codes were embedded on all pages printed on colour laser printers. Alarmed, I went home and confirmed that my printer – a Lexmark C530dn, serial number 9416FX1 – indeed coated each page with a near-invisible screen of yellow dots.

I understand some of the reasons for including these tracking dots – counterfeit detection, namely – but I do not believe the technology is justified, especially without prior knowledge or consent from the consumer. It is a violation of my right to privacy for this technology to be included on my printer, as every document that I print is “watermarked” with a unique serial that can be traced back to me.

I would like to provide a brief background of the communication channels I’ve been through so far regarding this issue:

[removed... just read the previous blog posts!]

Having found Canadian phone support unsuccessful, I now resort to writing letters. I respectfully request that the following six questions be answered, as I have been unable to find a satisfactory answer to them so far:

· Is it absolutely true, as Brian at Lexmark International stated, that it is impossible to disable the forensic tracking dots? If not, what method can I use to disable the tracking dots?

· Is a solution being developed, or will a solution be developed, to disable the yellow tracking dots?

· What American law, as Brian at Lexmark International indicated, mandates the inclusion of yellow tracking dots on colour laser printers?

· Does this law apply in Canada? Is this legal in Canada? If so, please indicate exactly which laws make this so.

· Are there other security features embedded in this printer that make it easier to track documents I print?

· Will Lexmark willingly provide information to their consumers – previous or potential – regarding the forensic tracking dot feature?

I appreciate your time and consideration in responding to this request for additional information. If you require any additional information on my behalf, I’ve kept detailed records of correspondence to date, and would be happy to provide it.

I was fairly impressed at Lexmark's response time for the last correspondence I sent. Let's see if I can get any real answers out of their privacy officers. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Phone Tag

The Story So Far:

This morning, I tried getting in touch with someone at Lexmark Canada. It's harder than it seems to talk to anyone useful. I did, however, record the calls so I could make better notes about them.

I'm not posting the recorded calls - I think that's creepy. Here are the transcript notes.

Call #1 - 1-800-539-6275
  • Talked to a guy named James, obviously Canadian. I explain my "problem" to James, including the fact that Lexmark USA called the issue a security issue.
  • He transfers me to a new menu system that I have to navigate. A robot woman finally directs me to a person.
  • Holding, holding, holding.
  • Robot woman: "Your call was unable to be completed. Call the toll-free number again". Damn!!
Call #2 - 1-800-539-6275
  • I re-navigate through the menu for tech support. It asks for the first four numbers of my printer's machine number, it tells me I am a liar. I navigate to the "support for all lasers" option.
  • I tell the robot I have an existing service request number and enter it.
  • "Your call is being routed to a dispatch agent".
  • Signal volume fades incredibly, a very-outsourced woman answers the line.
  • She asks me what the issue is... but there is a language barrier in understanding the issue.
  • She mumbles mumbles mumbles TRANSFER YOU mumbles
  • A man answers the line - again, a very outsourced man answers the phone.

  • Brahm: Explains yellow dots issue, matrix of yellow dots, Lexmark USA confirmed this is a security measure, why is it implemented in Canada?
  • Lexmark Outsource: "Don't worry, we are here to help you." (actual quote :-) )
  • Lexmark Outsource: Are you next to the printer so we can diagnose the issue?
  • Brahm: It's already been diagnosed, I've done the test pages, I've sent them samples, I'm looking for answers, about why it is happening. I want to know why the dots are being printed, not how.
  • Lexmark Outsource: Was the issue resolved?
  • Brahm: No, because the dots still print on the page. Lexmark USA says it's a built-in feature, they print on purpose.
  • Lexmark Outsource: I am sorry, but it is not a built-in issue. It is not a feature. There are many parts that can cause this issue, the toner cartridge, the photoconductor unit, etc etc, we need to identify the part causing the issue.
  • Brahm: I'm sorry sir, I've already done through all of that, I talked to {removed} at Lexmark USA, I received a new set of PC units, that doesn't fix the problem, we've swapped toner cartridges, that doesn't fix the problem, these dots appear because it's an anti-counterfeiting measure, and I want to know WHY they appear on printers sold in Canada.
  • Lexmark Outsource: Not sure about that... as far as I know, we can diagnose the issue, and I am not sure what is calling it.
  • Brahm: Okay, do you know of anyone who works in product engineering, or anyone who works in the Canadian HQ who works in security, or something like that?
  • I received the number 1-800-663-7662 x0 for Canadian Customer Support and thanked the agent for his help.
Call #3 - 1-800-663-7662
  • A french-Canadian sounding robot picks up the call. I am optimistic about the Canadian-ness of the line.
  • Lisa picks up the call. I give her the brief rundown - I said there was a security issue, I've been passed around Lexmark USA and outsourced tech support, I need to talk to someone about laser printers.
  • Jason gets the new call. I give him the rundown about the yellow dots, the American tech support, the photoconductor replacement, the admission of the security feature.
  • I said that HE said it was a "security feature mandated by the government" and hoped I didn't sound crazy.
  • Jason offers to put me through to tech support. I start to protest but he says "I'll put you right through" and mashes "hold" as fast as he can.
  • Oh NO... Outsourced tech support answers. I give the rundown... AGAIN... and the call is disconnected. Signal faded, who knows.
Today's Learnings:
  • 1-800-539-6275 has 5,610 Google hits. This number is also 1-800-LEXMARK. This goes somewhere in the states.
  • 1-800-663-7662 has 47 Google hits. I think this is the secret number to the inside! At least for Lexmark Canada.
  • Outsourced tech support - while good for "not enough toner" troubleshooting - can be pretty painful at resolving any real issues.
  • Lexmark's easy solution for the yellow dots is to just toss you on a line to India. I think letter-writing and emails is the way to go.
  • Lexmark USA and Lexmark Canada both have privacy offiers.
    Privacy Mailbox
    740 West New Circle Road
    Lexington, Kentucky 40550

    Attention: Privacy Officer Inc.
    50 Leek Crescent
    Richmond Hill, ON
    L4B 4J3
For the time being, I am going to give up on phone calls. Phone calls are too hard. The next order of business is to write hard-copy, paper letters to both the Canadian and American privacy offices, and maybe to a general address at each head office as well. At this point, I want to know:
  • What American law mandates the yellow dot security feature?
  • Why is this feature included on printers sold in Canada?
  • Is this legal in Canada? If so, please indicate exactly which laws make this so.
  • Is there any way to disable the feature? If not, why not? Is a solution being developed to disable this feature?
  • Are there other features embedded in this printer that make it easier to track documents that I print?
Go consumers!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lexmark Confirms Existance of Tracking Dots

My Lexmark support rep called me and left a message on my voicemail at about 10:00AM CST today - he had a question about how I had swapped the yellow and magenta cartridges to produce dots of a different color.

Just as I finished checking my voicemail, he called back again at 10:25AM CST!

Here's an approximate transcript - I was making notes as fast as I could, so this isn't verbatim.

Lexmark: Hi Brahm, I'm following up on that last message that I left you. I walked down to Product Engineering and talked to them about your yellow dots issue. I thought it was toner splash (or something like that? -B) but it turns out, you were correct about the counterfeit security function.

Brahm: So they're printed on purpose. Is there any way to disable the function?

L: No, the government won't let us disable it, like I said, it's a counterfeit security issue. Usually you cannot even see the dots unless you change the toner cartridge or use a high-resolution scanner.

B: In one of my letters, I asked about replacement printers. Does Lexmark make any color lasers that do not have the forensic tracking dots?

L: No. The government won't let us change it, it's the law.

B: Do you know which law?

L: (this question was kind of deflected in conversation - B)

B: I live in Canada. Does this US Government law apply here?

L: You are going to have to call Lexmark Canada's customer care line about that. Let me grab their number (pause)... 1-800-539-6275. Be sure to select the "Canada" option.

B: Thanks.. what should I do about the photoconductor units you shipped me? I can ship them back if you'd like.

L: No, you can keep them. Those are on us.

B: Thanks for all of your help.

My Lexmark rep was actually pretty helpful. I know his name but I don't think it's entirely appropriate to release it.

Holy smokes! Today was exciting! Today's learnings:
  • ALL Lexmark color lasers use forensic tracking dot technology.
  • Lexmark offers no options for printer exchange if you have an issue with the dots (to be fair, I am sure printers can be returned for refund within a certain timeframe).
  • There is some sort of American law that mandates forensic tracking dot technology and there is nothing average consumers can do to "opt out".
  • It is unknown whether or not this is legal in Canada.
Next step: It's time to bring the fight to this side of the border, and call Lexmark Canada. I think the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada will be involved soon enough, as well as some other bodies I outlined here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Package From Lexmark Received


I arrived home today to find a package from Lexmark waiting for me.

It was massive....

Along with a packlist, this was included:

A four-pack of photoconductor! Lexmark's solution to the problem. Sealed as "genuine Lexmark".

Mmm, fresh photoconductor.

Will it get rid of the yellow dots? STAY TUNED TO FIND OUT! (updating throughout the evening).


Photoconductor units are swapped. Initial prints reveal presense of yellow dots. Scans to come.

Before swapping photoconductor units I printed one last set of Menu Settings Pages and Print Quality Tests for reference.

I carefully noted serial numbers of all of the new (and old) photoconductor units.

I was careful to make sure that I could match which "slots" the old units came from and where the new ones were placed. I have photos of each "pair", and can say with certainty which new units replaced which old units if necessary.

Four new photoconductor units installed and ready to print:

First batch of menu settings pages and print tests. By initial observation I can still see a yellow dot pattern, and it appears to be identical to the old pattern.


7:15PM - Scans Galore

The nail is in the coffin: photoconductor units are not responsible for the yellow dots on Lexmark C530 printers.

You can click on this image of the Print Quality page from after the swap to see the dot pattern:

Here is how I make the dots more visible to the human eye in Photoshop, step by step.

1. Scan image at 1200dpi. Open with Photoshop.

2. Image -> Adjustments -> Brightness/Contrast: Set contrast to 100.

3. Image -> Adjustments -> Desaturate. This turns everything black and white.

4. To test to see if the photoconducter units changed the dot pattern, I overlaid the dot pattern I had previously scanned and "developed" with Photoshop. The purple boxes are the previous pattern with a magenta background, red stroke, 50% transparancy, laid over the new scan. The dot pattern is clearly and obviously identical.

Note that this process only filters colors that are already present in the image; it does not place any new information into the scanned image.

  • Photoconductor units are not responsible for the appearance of forensic tracking dots (but we already knew this)
  • Replacing the photoconductor units does not change the tracking dot pattern.
  • Replacing your photoconductor units is Lexmark's first line of defense when you send them evidence that yellow dots appear on all of your printouts.
  • A full set of photoconductor units retail for between $104 and $149.
Also, I just realized that my support rep did not acknowledge the fact that I had mailed them samples from two other printers. That is a point I will have to bring up when I deliver the news that this $150 "fix" didn't work.

Email to support (8:08PM):

Hi {removed},

Thanks for your assistance so far in trying to find a solution to this yellow dot problem. I received a C53034X unit in the mail today - a new set of four photoconductor units.

To make a long story short, the replacement photoconductor units did *not* fix the problem. I still see the yellow dots on printouts, and the pattern is exactly the same as before.

I documented the whole replacement process. I have serial numbers of old and new photoconductor units, photographs of the whole process, new Print Quality and Menu Settings pages, but I don't want to swamp you with information you don't need.

I don't know if I made it clear in my previous correspondence, but in the support package I mailed, I included printouts from two other Lexmark color lasers I have access to - not just my home unit. The units both printed a yellow dot pattern as well. To me, this is evidence that yellow dots are common to Lexmark color lasers, and not a problem isolated to my home unit.

Please advise on what the next course of action is to try and remove these yellow dots. I am prepared to send any printouts and documentation you require, or send back the new (or old) photoconductor units if need be.