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.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Lexmark Phones Back: The Conversation

The Story So Far:

Lexmark left a message on my phone yesterday saying that they had some questions about the printouts that I included in the package I mailed to them. I phoned them back to clarify some details.

I made some notes throughout the call but I couldn't keep up with everything. Here were some of the questions, answers and comments:

Lexmark: I see the printouts you included, the magenta dots that show up when you swap toner cartridges is not normal. It must be a photoconductor issue that is causing the dots.

Brahm: I tested every combination of swapping the yellow and magenta photoconductor units and toner cartridges, and the dots show up every time (and in different colors, when the toner cartriges are swapped).

L: It must be a photoconductor issue.

B: All four of my photoconductor units can produce the dots, are you saying that all four of my photoconductor units are defective?

L: They must be. We'll ship you another set of photoconductor units by tomorrow and hopefully that will fix the issue [confirms address].

B: You think we'll see the dots disappear?

L: Yes.

B: Okay, thanks for your time. I'll let you know how it goes.

Near the start of the call, my customer support rep also made a mumbly-grumbly comment about "counterfeiting dots" that I couldn't really understand. He was talking fast and loud but muffled, and I think he basically blew off my entire letter about tracking dots and privacy issues, and was focused on finding a generic tech-support solution. My impression from him was that he thinks the dots shouldn't be happening.

COLE'S NOTES VERSION: Lexmark denies tracking dots exist for tracking, blames faulty hardware; ships four new photoconductor units at no charge to rectify problem. But will it rectify the problem???

Tune in once I get the new photoconductor units to find out.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Comprehensive Support/Inquiry Package

I finished my package to send to Lexmark's headquarters in Kentucky. The contents:
  • Polite, concise letter, detailing the problem, the support and correspondence to date, and some of the "evidence" I've also included.
  • Appendix A: Scanned, enhanced, and re-printed evidence of my printer's forensic tracking dots. Ironically printed on the very same printer!
  • Appendix B: Scanned, enhanced, and re-printed evidence of forensic tracking dots on at least two other printers at the University of Saskatchewan.
  • Appendix C: Email correspondence to date.
  • Lexmark Print Quality Test - normal settings.
  • Lexmark Print Quality Test - yellow & magenta photoconductors swapped.
  • Lexmark Print Quality Test - yellow & magenta toner cartridges swapped.
  • Lexmark C530 Menu Settings Page
  • Two test pages from Lexmark C760 and C752 printers at the U of S.
Final Page Count: 29

The letter itself was two pages, but here is the "meat":
I understand some of the reasons for including these “forensic tracking dots” – counterfeit detection, namely – I do not believe it is justified. It is a violation of my fundamental human right to privacy and private life for this function to be included on the product without my prior knowledge or consent. I would like to see companies doing their due diligence and making this information known before customers commit to a purchase, especially one totalling hundreds of dollars (perhaps thousands including toner over the printer’s lifetime).

I can assure you that my interest in using my Lexmark C530 to participate in illegal counterfeiting or other activities is null, but I am concerned about my privacy. Given that my printer’s pattern is the same regardless of Toner Cartridge or Photoconductor Unit, anyone with a reference page can associate a document I’ve printed to me, and on principle I find this unacceptable.

The least I can hope for is a response with some details, or potentially some additional information. I am not expecting a fix at this point. I've read some scary stuff - the incident that prompted the EFF investigation was when a guy phoned his printer company to inquire about the yellow dots - a week later, the United State Secret Service showed up at his door.

If I get a non-satisfactory response from this venue, I'm not close to being out of options. There is Lexmark's Canadian headquarters in Richmond Hill, ON, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, the Consumer Protection Branch of the Government of Saskatchewan, the Canadian BBB, Lexmark's corporate executive, Lexmark's Board of Directors, and my very-favorite consumer rights blog, the Consumerist. There's also the long-shot potential for local media coverage - nothing major, probably a small write-up. Nothing I've done yet is quite newsworthy, so I will hold off on all new contacts until Lexmark is able to send me a response. I'm a big supporter of consumer and privacy rights, so I will push this issue until I can get a satisfactory response from someone!

Until then, maybe we can crack the encoding on the Lexmark's forensic dots...