Yellow-Dots-Buck-bar

Many color laser printers add tiny yellow dots to each page they print. These dots encode the printer serial number and additional information. A recently published research paper reveals new information about this secret code.

14 years ago the computer magazine PC World published an article titled “Government Uses Color Laser Printer Technology to Track Documents“. According to this article, “several printer companies quietly encode the serial number and the manufacturing code of their color laser printers and color copiers on every document those machines produce.”

 

Yellow dots

The concept described by PC World works as follows: When a color printer (or a color copier) prints a document, it adds a pattern of tiny yellow dots (about 0.1 millimeter in diameter) to the paper. These dots are barely visible to the naked eye. The dots encode a message, which includes an identification of the printer as well as the date and time of the printing process. This means: If one knows the code, one can easily determine the origin of a printout just by looking at it.

The yellow dot code, also known as Machine Identification Code (MIC), has been around for about 25 years. As it seems, different printer manufacturers use different dot codes. In the years after the PC World article, members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others examined Machine Identification Codes and found out a few details about them. However, neither a printer producer nor a state authority has ever published any substancial information about this concept.

Machine Identification Codes are not to be confused with digital water marks on banknotes, which allow photocopy machines and graphics editors to detect and refuse copying of bank notes.

According to press reports, whistleblower Reality Winner, an employee of a US military contractor who leaked classified data via the platform The Intercept, was caught because law enforcement used the yellow dots code to identify the printer she had used to print out the material she was going to leak.

Reality-Winner

Last year I wrote two blog posts about Machine Identification Codes. My latest book Versteckte Botschaften (2nd edition) contains a chapter about this subject, too. Virtually all the information I found about Machine Identification Codes was over ten years old. There has not been much media coverage in the last decade, apart from the Reality Winner case.

A few days ago, reports about a method that overprints the yellow dots and thus makes the code unusuable hit the media. The method was developed by researchers of the University of Dresden, Germany.

 

Peter Buck’s thesis

Earlier this week, Peter Buck from Enschede, Netherlands, …

Peter-Buck

… informed me that a research work about the yellow dots code he wrote is now finished and available for download.

Buck-Thesis

In my view, this 30 pages paper (it is referred to as “dissertation”, which is a little confusing for Germans, as a dissertation in Germany usually is a PHD thesis) is the most important work about the yellow dots code that has been published in recent years.

According to Peter’s paper, there are two different methods that can be used to make the dots visible:

  • With the first method method (physical), the paper is illuminated with a blue light. This light makes the yellow dots appear black. These dots can then be observed using a magnifying glass. The physical method is useful for an immediate analysis of a document because it can be used at a crime scene.
  • The second method is digital. Scanning a document with specific settings can make the yellow dots visible. Essential settings are DPI, sharpness, darkness and contrast. Furthermore, the scanner must use limited compression. Some imaging tools can change the color channels of an image. Deleting both the green and red channels results in a grayscale image of the blue channel. This grayscale image then shows the dots.

One of Peter’s research results refers to the code used by Xerox (until recently, the only Machine Identification Code that was understood):

Yellowdots-Xerox

Column 10 was previously thought to be a separator between the serial number and the date and time of printing. As Peter found out, it is instead a line which defines whether a document has been printed or copied. If column 10 is filled, the document is printed. If it is empty, except the parity bit, the document is copied.

Peter’s main research result is the decoding of another code, used by HP, Kyocera Lexmark, and Ricoh.

Dot-Code-Buck

This code, which encodes the time of printing, as well as the printer type and some other information, is described on pages 13-16 in Peter’s publication.

Congratulations, Peter, on this great work. I hope, we will see more research of this kind.


Further reading: My steganographic gravestone tour (2): The “Fuck You” gravestone in Montreal
Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/groups/13501820
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/763282653806483/

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Gib Deine E-Mail-Adresse an, um diesen Blog zu abonnieren und Benachrichtigungen über neue Beiträge via E-Mail zu erhalten.

Kommentare (6)

  1. #1 Jerry McCarthy
    England, Europa
    1. Juli 2018

    Slight errors in this sentence fragment, methinks:

    “With the first method method (ohysical)”

  2. #2 Klaus Schmeh
    1. Juli 2018

    @Jerry: Thanks, I have corrected it.

  3. #3 TrueDan
    1. Juli 2018

    Are there ways to defeat the yellow dot code? For example:

    1. Are these yellow dot codes also included in documents printed or copied in black and white or shades of gray rather than in color?

    2. When a document is copied and then recopied and perhaps recopied again, and perhaps rotated each time, is there such a jumble of yellow dots that they cannot be decoded?

    3. Can a sheet of transparent yellow plastic, or some other color, be placed over a paper before it is copied to “submerge” the dots in a sea of yellow or to filter out the original yellow dots? That is, could this be done on a public copier to hide the original yellow dot code?

    4. What happens if a sheet of transparent plastic containing “millions” of yellow polka dots is used to cover the paper being copied?

    5. What happens to the yellow dots if the copy is made using yellow paper rather than white paper?

  4. #4 Peter Buck
    Tilburg
    1. Juli 2018

    To give a brief answer to your questions:
    1. Nope, the dots are only included if the document is printed in color.
    2. Not likely, since the additional dots will be misplaced slighty. Furthermore, the copied paper has to be scanned and printed with specific resolutions.
    3. I guess that would work. It would make your document tainted yellow, but it would work. It does depend on the specific yellow intensity. If it isn’t the correct yellow, the dots will remain visible.
    4. Same thing as number 3.
    5. Also the same answer as 3.

  5. #5 Dampier
    6. Juli 2018

    Nice work. Do the dots consist of 100 % yellow? I would then simply add a random pattern of dots to every document I want to print.

    What if I print a blank page on a sheet and then rotate it and print my document? Well, that might still be decipherable …

    just thinking aloud … 😉

  6. #6 JS
    6. August 2018

    There is a new study on this subject in which 141 printer models where analyzed. They even created a tool that should read out the encrypted information and provide a way to mask the dots.
    – Study-site: https://dfd.inf.tu-dresden.de/
    – Download paper: https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=3206004.3206019