November 04, 2005
What the Reverse Vampires Are Up To
Posted by geoffrey manne

For some reason it seems to have passed with little fanfare (at least in my rarefied circles), but recently the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) announced a startling discovery:  The government, in conjunction with printer manufacturers (or is it the Rand Corporation, in conjunction with the reverse vampires?)  have for some time been tracking computer printer output.  Details are sketchy, but it looks like the government has been working with printer manufacturers to embed coded messages in every document produced on certain color laser printers (indicating the serial number of the printer and the time and date of printing) in an effort to assist enforcement against counterfeiters.  According to this article, the technology has been employed by some manufacturers for decades.

EFF does some decent work (cracking this code, for example, would have to qualify), but unfortunately it’s also a group of fear mongers — not that just because they’re paranoid there isn’t anyone following them.  It’s just that they have limited credibility when this is their take:

Even worse, it shows how the government and private industry make backroom deals to weaken our privacy by compromising everyday equipment like printers. The logical next question is: what other deals have been or are being made to ensure that our technology rats on us?

Look guys — as Posner would tell you (and so would any other economist) it’s about trade-offs.  Do you think counterfeiting is a problem?  Should the government use any resources to combat it?  Now, if so, how can you be sure that this is not, in fact, the best way to do so, even though it entails a cost?  What doesn’t?  The next logical question is hardly “how else has private industry colluded with the government to screw us over?”  The actual next logical question is, “is this the most cost-effective way to deal with the problem of counterfeiting, given the potential cost?”  Now, how hard was that?  Let’s not assume our conclusions before we even ask the questions, shall we?

By the way — here’s what I think really ought to be the next question:  “How on earth was this kept secret for so long?”  I mean — there had to be dozens if not hundreds of folks in on this, in both industry and government.  How did the secret not get out?  How is it possible that not a single programmer involved in the project at Xerox leaked the news?  Or — did they?  Was this known to the counterfeiting community long ago?  (And, of course, if so, question one — was this a good idea? -- becomes a little easier to answer).

Relatedly, what kind of protections could EFF want in the future? Disclosure? That would immediately defeat the purpose, and, again, assume the conclusion of the very question being asked. So what, realistically, should be done?

Also, I note that, according to the EFF itself, the tracking dots are used only in color laser printers. Maybe this is itself a decent compromise position. If the government really wanted secretly to monitor subversive organizations like Greenpeace and the ACLU through their printed output, wouldn't it make more sense to target the black and white printers?  Or are these organizations printing strictly in color these days?

Finally, my real beef with EFF is not that it is wary of government; there's plenty to be wary of. My real problem is that it seems not to discriminate between potential government violations of one's privacy and anonymity on the one hand, and private sector incursions on the other. This, by the way, is a problem it shares with one of the organization's intellectual godfathers, Larry Lessig (see here).

The point seems obvious, but there is an enormous, qualitative difference between the threat posed by Leviathan reading your emails and that posed by your boss doing it. If you don't like your boss doing it enough, you work someplace else (or contract with your boss to stop). If you don't like it that Sony encodes intrusive DRM software on its CDs, you buy another label's CDs. If enough people share your aversion to these incursions in the private sphere, the market will induce the violators to respond and/or it will provide alternatives. But we can't say the same for Leviathan, and the democratic process is hardly a reliable system for inducing the government to respond, even to the preferences of the majority.

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» On Second Thought from Whofoodathamatme? ...
"Mr. Manne takes the other side of the argument regarding EFF aping Fox Mulder. Makes sense to me. No ..." [more] (Tracked on November 4, 2005 @ 14:31)
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