Counterfeiters beware. Your penchant for using your laser printer to illegally produce currency, passports and other federally regulated documents may soon get you into trouble, if it hasn't already. While some might argue that counterfeiting is the sincerest form of flattery, it is generally looked down upon by the government and most upstanding citizens. What you may not know is that should you choose to use your laser printer for anything other than work, personal communication, romantic haikus, cookbooks and other run-of-the-mill (i.e. LEGAL) purposes, that same printer may aid law enforcement in staging a friendly visit to your home, office, or well-camouflaged woodland cabin.
In West Lafayette, Indiana, researchers at Purdue University have developed a method that allows law enforcement agencies to trace documents to specific laser printers. By reading and analyzing a printout, the software can identify characteristics unique to each printer and often successfully determine what model was used. Many manufacturers already program their laser printers to automatically include serial and manufacturer codes on anything their machines produce. These codes, sometimes dots, are usually too faint and too small to see with the naked eye, requiring magnification or a software program to detect them. On printouts from color laser printers, they are printed faintly in yellow ink. Even on black and white documents and without a printed code, there are is a number of detectable variations in printed characters and development that enable others to trace the documents back to their originating printer.
While the installation of this technology has been standard practice for printer companies, consumers are by and large left unaware of this feature. This raises some interesting questions regarding privacy and technology. It can be unsettling, the notion of your computer accessories ratting you out to the Man whether or not you're engaged in criminal behaviors. You can relax a little, though, and stop planning for a future of exclusive pen and crayon use. Assuming you are not currently counterfeiting money or documents and being sought after by the government, miniscule printed code and print pattern recognition software is not much of a threat to your printing or privacy.
So before you decide you want to become an instant millionaire or create a new identity for yourself via laser printer, you might want to reconsider. Your printer is an indispensable, powerful tool for business and personal use. It just might not be inclined (or programmed) to cover for you when the Secret Service comes knocking.