Commissioner says printers could break human rights law

Computer printers could be violating European citizens' human rights the EU Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security has warned. Franco Frattini said that secret ID codes printed by machines could be invading users' privacy.

Many machines now print a series of barely-visible yellow dots onto documents so that they can be traced to that device. Xerox has admitted to using the technology, though not all manufacturers have.

Frattini was asked about the privacy implications of the phenomenon in a parliamentary question at the European Parliament.

"Does the Commission believe that the current practices of manufacturers in this regard, including their disclosures to consumers, are consistent with relevant Community law on data protection and consumer protection?" asked Finnish MEP Satu Hassi.

Frattini said that there was a danger that the printers were breaking European laws. "To the extent that individuals may be identified through material printed or copied using certain equipment, such processing may give rise to the violation of fundamental human rights, namely the right to privacy and private life," he said in a written answer to the question. "It also might violate the right to protection of personal data."

Frattini said that the technology was not always against the law, though. "The Commission is not aware of any specific laws either at national or at Community level governing tracking mechanisms in colour laser printers and photocopiers," he said.

"In the cases outlined in the Honourable Member's question, the information based on tracking printed or copied material does not necessarily include data relating to identified or identifiable individuals, i.e. personal data," he said.

Personal data is specifically protected by the Data Protection Directive, but there is debate in Europe around what does and what does not count as personal data and what, therefore, qualifies for protection.

Even if information about what you printed does not qualify technically as personal data, Frattini said that their use might still break the law. "The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, in Article 7, provides for the protection of private and family life, home and communication, and in Article 8, for the protection of personal data," he said in his answer.

The existence of the yellow dots has been known for a number of years and is the subject of an information campaign by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group in the US.

It says it has identified printers that encode documents with information from Dell, Canon, Epson, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Lexmark, Oki and Xerox, amongst others. It says that some of the dots reveal the printer serial number, date and time of the printing of a document.

The US Secret Service has in the past admitted that the dots are part of a deal struck with manufacturers to help it combat counterfeiting.