Computer printers may breach privacy laws

European Commissioner questions lawfulness of watermarking techniques

The practice of including watermarks, usually in the form of tiny, barely visible yellow dots, on documents produced by common computer printers may be unlawful, according to Franco Frattini, the vice-president of the European Commission.

The ‘forensic tracking mechanisms’ used in some toner-based printers are said by manufacturers to be designed to help identify counterfeiters. But Mr Frattini, who is the Commissioner for Justice and Security, has said in a written answer to a question from a Finnish Green Party MEP that “such processing may give rise to the violation of fundamental human rights, namely the right to privacy and private life. It also might violate the right to protection of personal data.”

According to the US-based digital civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation, the US government has encouraged printer manufacturers to incorporate technology that encodes printing output so that the printer serial number, and the date and time of each page can be identified.