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Privacy Fears Smell Like Paranoia

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Most of us have little occasion to crack open the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the mental health profession’s guidebook for classifying mental health problems.

If we were to scan that hefty tome, however, and then focus on disorder number 301.0, we would read about something called Paranoid Personality Disorder. Basically, it describes someone who shows a pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others, interpreting their motives as malevolent.

Among other things, such as individual suspects, without sufficient basis, that others are exploiting, harming, or deceiving him or her, and reads hidden negative or threatening meanings into apparently benign remarks or events.

I bring this up, because I see increasing evidence of this pattern of behavior as a trend in our society, and it is often linked to the rise of technology.

For example, a recent story in USA Today notes that “civil liberties advocates” are concerned that a certain color laser printer technology will lead to government spying on political dissidents, whistleblowers, or “anyone who prints materials that authorities want to track.”

The “advocates” are subsequently identified as the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. According to the group’s website, it consists of lawyers, policy analysts, activists and technologists who “fight for freedom primarily in the courts, bringing and defending lawsuits even when that means taking on the U.S. government or large corporations.”

According to the USA Today piece, laser printers leave microscopic yellow dots on each printed page to identify the printer’s serial number–which could presumably lead to identification of the printer’s owner. Invisible to the naked eye, the dots can only be seen using a blue LED light and are used by agencies such as the Secret Service to identify counterfeit bills created with a laser printer. This technology, the article adds, has existed for some years.

I asked computer hardware expert Lou Slawetsky, president of Rochester, N.Y.-based Industry Analysts, for his take on the privacy fears noted.

“I don’t see it as a threat, but I’m not a dissident,” he quips. “The only people worried about being found out are those who are doing stuff they shouldn’t be doing. Manufacturers used to embed a chip in copiers that would not allow currency to be copied–it would turn out blank–but since we have changed our currencies, that doesn’t work any more. So now we have the dots.

“There are many ways to identify where a document came from,” he explains. “You can go back and look at the URL. You can identify every server that e-mail or document came through to be printed. It’s really not the printer itself that is the leak into your life, it’s the computer.”

I’m inclined to agree with Slawetsky, who notes that the dots used to identify a laser printer are similar to the old methods of identifying a particular typewriter’s output by unique characteristics of a certain letter, say a broken “e.” Identifying the typewriter or printer, of course, doesn’t positively prove that a certain individual wrote the document, but looking behind the scenes in the computer or network could do just that.

Call me unduly blas?, but I’m really not feeling threatened by the laser dots. Counterfeiting is a major threat to our economy, and the economy is none too vigorous these days. If someone pulls a document out of the garbage and the government subsequently identifies it as coming from my printer, I’ll deal with that.

What individuals and businesses don’t want to deal with, however, is a true invasion of privacy that includes criminal activity. That is a much more dicey situation, and the stakes may be far higher.

Let’s face it, does anyone out there seriously believe that someone with sufficient technology acumen–say the U.S. government or a 14-year-old hacker–couldn’t easily find out this and much more information via legal and illegal incursions into our computer systems? That’s one reason why no one should send an e-mail that he or she doesn’t want his family, friends, boss, government or the rest of the world to be able to see.

Privacy in cyberspace is a comforting illusion to which many cling, but the reality is cold, hard and unrelenting. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to protect the privacy of our personal and business communications. It does mean, however, that we cannot be foolish enough to think we are then completely secure.

With so many other threats to corporate and individual privacy out there, I have to admit that identifying dots for laser printers is not high on my list of worries.

If the laser dot technology is a government plot designed to gain secret information on citizens, it is a remarkably ineffective one.


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