Chrome OS is ready to use printers without the cloud

Despite decades of attempts to straighten out the connections between printers and computers, it’s a situation that always (at least for me) seems to have an extra complication. On Chrome OS, ever since launch it has by default relied on Google Cloud Print and compatible printers to get the job done, but now that version 59 has reached the Stable release channel, it’s a little easier to use.

That’s because it has a new ability for “Native Printing,” which basically means that it can connect directly to compatible printers on your network, without the need for any cloud connection at all. Some manufacturers and third parties have been getting around the cloud print requirement with extensions like this one, but now support is built in and available to everyone.

Chrome OS printer dialog box

You’ll need to know your printer’s IP address to make things work, as well as which protocol it supports. According to Google’s FAQ, for most printers that will be IPP, which is what allows many printers to connect to other devices like your phone or tablet. As Chrome OS spreads throughout schools and businesses, the ability to work with existing hardware has become more important, and at least now you’re probably not looking at a printer replacement along with your new operating system.

Computer printers have been quietly embedding tracking codes in documents for decades

In 2004, when color printers were still somewhat novel, PCWorld magazine published an article headlined: “Government Uses Color Laser Printer Technology to Track Documents.”

It was one of the first news reports on a quiet practice that had been going on for 20 years. It revealed that color printers embed in printed documents coded patterns that contain the printer’s serial number, and the date and time the documents were printed. The patterns are made up of dots, less than a millimeter in diameter and a shade of yellow that, when placed on a white background, cannot be detected by the naked eye.

Printer_Steganography_Illustration
The dots are less than a millimeter in diameter and invisible to the naked eye (Wikimedia Commons)

 

In 2004, when color printers were still somewhat novel, PCWorld magazine published an article headlined: “Government Uses Color Laser Printer Technology to Track Documents.”

It was one of the first news reports on a quiet practice that had been going on for 20 years. It revealed that color printers embed in printed documents coded patterns that contain the printer’s serial number, and the date and time the documents were printed. The patterns are made up of dots, less than a millimeter in diameter and a shade of yellow that, when placed on a white background, cannot be detected by the naked eye.

The dots are less than a millimeter in diameter and invisible to the naked eye (Wikimedia Commons)The existence of the hidden dots gained renewed interest this week when they were found embedded in a top-secret report by the US National Security Agency (NSA) that was published by The Intercept on June 5. About an hour after the report was published, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had arrested a suspected leaker. The 25-year-old NSA contractor, Reality Leigh Winner, was charged “with removing classified material from a government facility and mailing it to a news outlet.”
In an affidavit released by the DOJ, an FBI agent described how Winner had been tracked down. The scanned copy of the document, which The Intercept had given to the government to confirm its authenticity, “appeared to be folded and/or creased,” the agent wrote, “suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space.”
When researchers later discovered the tracking dots embedded in the document, many quickly assumed that the NSA had used them to find Winner. However, according to the affidavit, an internal government audit found that only six people had printed out the classified documents. Winner was one of those six people, and the audit found that she had also sent an email to the news outlet from her work computer. An analysis of the dots was therefore probably not necessary to track down Winner, despite several misleading news reports that suggest otherwise. But their presence has nonetheless resurfaced long-standing privacy concerns.
By analyzing the dots in the top-secret document, researchers were able to conclude it came from a printer with a serial number of 29535218, model number 54, and that it was printed on May 9, 2017, at 6:20 a.m., at least according to the printer’s internal clock. In a case where a leaker had covered his or her tracks more carefully, or where the leaked documents had been printed by far more than six people, or perhaps printed on a non-government printer, the dots certainly could have come into play.
Looking into how the embedded codes came to be, we found a secret history that’s been little told. The technology meant to track our paper documents back to us has been hidden in plain sight for more than 30 years.

The 2004 article in PCWorld was based on information provided by Peter Crean, who was a senior research fellow at Xerox at the time. In his first public interview about the practice since talking to the magazine 13 years ago, Crean told Quartz that Xerox hadn’t done much to share information about the dots’ existence.

“We didn’t advertise it much to the people that had [the printers],” said Crean, now retired. “We didn’t not tell them if they asked. The salespeople were told, ‘Don’t lead with it in any sales, but if they ask you about it, you can tell them we have the security feature in there.’”

When color printers were first introduced, he said, governments were worried the devices would be used for all sorts of forgery, particularly counterfeiting money. An early solution came from Japan, where the yellow-dot technology, known as printer steganography, was originally developed as a security measure.

Fuji, which has been in a joint-venture partnership with Xerox since 1962, was the first to implement the codes in printers. Fuji-Xerox manufactures most of Xerox’s printing and copying devices, and has done so for several decades. Amid rampant counterfeiting issues in Japan in the mid-1980s, Crean said, the company began programming color printers to embed the dots.

“They put it on early and we went along with it,” Crean said, “because the machines came with it.”

There are no laws or regulations in the US that force printer manufacturers to include the tracking codes. It became standard practice primarily because some countries would have refused to import the products without some assurance that if the printers were used to counterfeit money, they’d be able to track the owners down. If Xerox hadn’t implemented steganography in its early color printers, the US may have tried to block their import from Japan, Crean said.

In addition to the yellow-dot technology, Xerox implemented another feature around the same time that forced color copiers to shut down if they detected steganography in documents indicating they were currency. In 1994, the US Central Intelligence Agency approached Xerox about using the same technology to stop the unauthorized copying of classified documents, and Crean provided some ideas in a brainstorming session with two agents that year, he said. He wasn’t aware of whether the agency used any of his ideas, but the functionality to detect currency, he said, “was in most of the machines at least through the mid-2000s.”

When Crean talked to PCWorld in 2004, Xerox had been pushing a PR campaign focused on the technology and science behind some of its innovations, including steganography. The company had asked Crean to highlight the tech as a neat security feature the company’s printers included, and to talk about the science behind it. Crean had talked publicly about the codes a few times before, and nothing much had come of it. The company likely assumed the techie readers of PCWorld would get a kick out of the obscure feature.

“Our PR people set it up for me,” said Crean. “When I gave the interview at my desk, our PR person was sitting right across the desk from me, nodding at everything I said.”

The article created an uproar among privacy advocates, who said the practice was a violation of Americans’ constitutional rights. Although the article quoted a Secret Service counterfeiting specialist, who said “the only time any information is gained from these documents is purely in [the case of] a criminal act,” privacy advocates pointed out there were no laws to hold the government to that.

“The possible misuses of this marking technology are frightening,” wrote the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in a blog post responding to the article. “Individuals using printers to create political pamphlets, organize legal protest activities, or even discuss private medical conditions or sensitive personal topics can be identified by the government with no legal process, no judicial oversight, and no notice to the person spied upon.”

Salespeople at Xerox were told at this point to refer all questions about the dots to Xerox headquarters, Crean said.

A security researcher at the EFF, Seth Schoen, began looking into the dots shortly after the article was published, hoping to figure out how to read the encoded patterns. The organization asked the public to submit samples of their own printed documents, Schoen said, which helped them to compare differences between patterns on many printer models.

“We also went to a number of Kinko’s locations and printed our own samples, which is a great way to get DocuColor samples,” Schoen said, referring to Xerox model they were researching. “We looked at them with scanners and microscopes (and blue-light flashlights).”

How to decode the hidden dot patterns
How to decode the hidden dot patterns (Electronic Frontier Foundation)

Eventually, a volunteer working with the EFF noticed that the dots represented a binary code, Schoen said. It allowed them to crack the logic behind them, and to read the information embedded in any document that used yellow-dot steganography. The organization published the results of its work, along with an interactive tool to decode the dots.

The researchers also published a list of all the models they found that embed the same pattern of dots, but Schoen pointed out in a phone interview that we should assume every color printer embeds tracking information in one way or another. He referred to information the EFF obtained in 2005 through a Freedom of Information Act request to the US government.

“Some of the documents that we previously received through FOIA suggested that all major manufacturers of color laser printers entered a secret agreement with governments to ensure that the output of those printers is forensically traceable,” the EFF said on its website.

Indeed, Crean said that after Fuji-Xerox began embedding tracking codes, the practice became ubiquitous.

“Other companies came up with other variants of that scheme that were more complicated, harder to decode. Canon kind of twist theirs around in a spiral,” Crean said, “but everybody was basically putting a small digital set of bits smack dab all over the print.”

Xerox, HP, Canon, and the NSA did not immediately respond to our requests for comment.

Although the code behind the yellow-dot patterns was cracked, there is likely other steganography still in use that has yet to be discovered. In addition to the various implementations Crean mentioned, Schoen said there is at least one newer version that is even more difficult to find in a document.

“What we’ve learned is that there is a second generation of the technology that some of the manufacturers have switched over to,” Schoen said. “We’ve never cracked that or even had a way to detect it.”

 

With GST Single-Function Printers to Cost Less but MFPs to Cost More

Printer market in the country is facing a lot of headwinds due to the digital drive in organizations. The government’s move to revise GST rates has brought down the prices of single-function printers but increased the prices of multifunction printers in the country. Earlier the GST Council had set the GST at 28 % on all kinds of printers. But it revised the rates for single function printers lowering the GST to 18%.

gst

It is believed that the sale of single function printers might go up after this comes in effect. However, it is not so easy to estimate right now, given the fact that the sale of single function printers have been constantly going down for over many years now. However, the new GST regime might further give a blow to multifunction printers. MFPs are the only segment that has gone up. Players such as HP, Canon, Epson, Samsung, Ricoh, Xerox and Panasonic, among others might face headwinds if the prices remain beyond the consumer expectations.

tax

The 16th meeting of Council led by Finance Minister Arun Jiatley concluded on 11th June where rates of 66 items were revised. The Goods and Services Tax will come into effect by 1st July 2017. Most of the items have been listed under four broad tax slab- 5%, 12%, 18% and 28%.

Items like camera, printed circuits, speakers and monitors, printers (other than multi function printers), electrical transformer, CCTV, optical fiber are priced at 18% tax under GST. This might increase the sales of single functional printers in the country. Although the multi-functional printers will continue to remain expensive. The printer market in India has grown tremendously in the last few years.

The best printers you can buy for your home

Working from home is becoming increasingly popular in this connected world we live in, but if you start working from home, you may not have access to all the tools that an office-space has to offer. Not only that, but if you have kids in school, or simply need to print every now and then, having a good printer at your disposal can be extremely helpful. Of course, there are a ton of printers out there to choose from, and not all of them are created equal.

Before you decide on a specific model of printer to go for, you should make a few decisions on the type of printer you need. Here are a few key points to consider before you make the decision to pull the trigger on a new printer.

Insider Picks_ 3 4x3 printer

  • Laser or inkjet: There are two main types of printers – laser and inkjet, and they’re actually pretty different. Laser printers are generally more expensive, but the trade-off is that you don’t have to worry about buying ink, and pages are printed a lot quicker. Laser printers need toner, which lasts longer than the ink used by inkjet printers. This type of printer is also best for printing documents and sometimes only prints in black and white, though many laser printers can do color, too. Inkjet printers are cheaper to buy, but ink is expensive. However, if you print photos, this is the printer you want. Inkjet printers are also easier to maintain, so most people will likely prefer them.
  • Do you want a scanner? Many printers these days also come with a scanner, meaning you can combine your printing and scanning needs into one device. Speaking from personal experience, it’s common to use the scanner after signing a document that may have been emailed to you, so it may be a good thing to have in your home office.
  • Double-sided printing: Many printers out there offer the ability to print double-sided documents, so you won’t have to worry about flipping the page over and printing again if you want dual-sided printing. This also helps cut down on the number of pages you print, which is obviously good for the environment.

Some companies also offer some extra features. For example, HP offers an ink subscription service, in which you can pay $2.99 per month and have HP automatically send new ink when it detects that your ink supply is running low.

But what’s the best printer out there? Here are the five best printers you can buy. You should also check out our guides to the best computer mice and the best Bluetooth keyboards.

Although the Brother MFC-J985DW is our top pick, for various reasons laid out in the slides below, you should also consider the HP Envy 5560, the HP LaserJet Pro M252dw, the Canon ImagePrograf PRO-1000, and the Canon Pixma iP8720.