The BigBrotherAward in the Technology category goes to Canon Germany, Ltd. for embedding an invisible, globally unique device ID in all colour copies, making it possible to find out in retrospect on which device a photocopy was made.
Canon have been using this technology for a few years, and rumours about this function have been circling around the internet for quite a while. Now the BigBrotherAwards jury has seen concrete evidence for the existence of this technology. With an invisible code that is printed on all copies, they can be traced back to the device on which they were made.
On every sheet of paper that runs through a copier, the individual number of the device is printed, using a technology that Canon are keeping secret. The number can not be seen with the naked eye. As a consequence, Canon can find out where a device was made, for example as a service to state authorities, because through service contracts and device registrations the makers know where their photocopiers are located.
If copied identity documents, bank notes or the like are found, the authorities can then pinpoint a copy shop, for example, and put it under observation. For reasons of "investigation tactics", this will surely not be discussed in advance with the owners of the affected shop. There is also no hint about this feature in the user manuals. That is why the BigBrotherAwards jury wants to use the technology award to promote public awareness of this issue.
While such a technology may seem appropriate for detecting crime, it is also a threat to informational freedom. Who will dare to uncover corruption scandals and forward evidence to the media if it is known that a copy is not anonymous, if the employers as owners of the photocopier can trace copies back to an individual department or office? Copy shop workers have confirmed that there have been concrete enquiries from the authorities in the past.
With this technology award, we also want to mark a trend: the handover of human decisions to technology. The copied code is not the only technological trick found in today's copiers, image editing software and colour printers. Pattern recognition is used to prevent the reproduction of protected documents - the printer decides autonomously to stop printing documents, responding with an error message instead. Monetary documents such as bank notes and share certificates are currently affected, but it can be expected that systems used to pursue copyright violations will evolve in a similar way.
Users of such devices can no longer make copies without being monitored and restricted by technological means. Copiers, printers or scanners take care that nothing "forbidden" can be duplicated. And the copies are registered.
What does this mean for example for calls for a political demonstration? Or documents that the originator would prefer not to have copied because they might reveal cases of corruption?
The movements of customers can be traced - which the BigBrotherAwards jury regards as a violation of privacy, and a risk for photocopier owners to become an innocent target of state investigators.
Congratulations, Canon Germany.