Is your printer tracking you? It’s a question that you’ve probably never asked yourself, but it might be time to do some fact-checking: even Snopes has established that there is some truth to this bizarre urban legend, which began circulating in 2017 when Reality Winner was exposed and subsequently arrested for leaking confidential information about Russian collusion with the 2016 U.S. election.
How was Winner tracked down? Through the “yellow dots of mystery,” otherwise known as specialized metadata used by printer manufacturers to spy on consumers. In a world where plenty of conspiracy theories involving Alexa, Siri, and facial recognition keep tech-savvy consumers on their toes, the concept of NSA tracking through your printer is unnerving.
But it’s not as creepy as it sounds. As long as you’re not doing anything illegal, it’s unlikely that your Brother printer, be it a Brother LC203 ink or Brother HL2390DW Printer, is going to lead to anything harmful.
Why It Exists
Tech nerds are familiar with the metadata, while political junkies are intrigued by Winner’s situation. Every day people are simply confused. What does it mean? How does the technology work? What is the purpose? You probably have a lot of questions, but fortunately, thanks to tech-savvy sleuths who have figured out how printer manufacturers are slipping a hidden feature into their products and managing to keep track of their consumers.
The feature that covertly tracks and logs information on printed documents was originally intended to ensure that counterfeit currency was not being printed. That’s a reasonable measure to take, considering how widespread the underground counterfeit money market is. Printer manufacturers were simply trying to avoid being involved in criminal activity.
However, they are not required to inform customers that this feature actually exists, meaning that your printer may or may not be tracking you. There’s really no way of knowing unless you inspect printed documents with a blue LED light or a magnifying glass.
How it Works
On each printed page, there are a series of barely visible yellow “tracking dots,” otherwise known as microdots, which repeat over and over in a rectangular pattern. They are visible with the naked eye, but it’s easy to blink and miss them; in fact, most people don’t see them without zooming in or using an LED light.
The yellow dots covertly encode every printed page with the date, time, and a serial number. A simple cipher can be used to interpret the information. It was this information that led to Winner’s arrest, and could lead to yours—should you decide to print some fake hundred-dollar bills. Otherwise, it’s unlikely that this feature will trouble you any time soon.