Printers betray document secrets

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Mon Oct 18 20:23:28 EDT 2004



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Monday, 18 October, 2004, 16:58 GMT 17:58 UK

 Printers betray document secrets That staple of crime novels - solving a
case by identifying the typewriter used to write a ransom note - is being
updated for the modern day.

 US scientists have discovered that every desktop printer has a signature
style that it invisibly leaves on all the documents it produces.

 They have now found a way to use this to identify individual laser printers.

 The work will help track down printers used to make bogus bank notes, fake
passports and other important papers.

 Spot colour

 Before now it was thought that the differences between cheap,
mass-produced desktop printers were not significant enough to make
individual identification possible.

 But a team from Purdue University in Indiana led by Professor Edward Delp
has developed techniques that make it possible to trace which printer was
used to produce which document.

 In 11 out of 12 tests, the team's methods identified which model of
desktop laser printer was used to print particular documents.

 "We also believe that we will be able to identify not only which model of
printer was used but specifically which printer was used," Professor Delp

 The image processing software developed by Professor Delp's team looks for
the "intrinsic signatures" that each printer produces.

 Professor Jan Allebach, who helped develop the ID techniques, said the
production methods demanded by competition in the desktop printer market
meant there was quite a lot of variation in the way different machines
printed pages.

 "For a company to make printers all behave exactly the same way would
require tightening the manufacturing tolerances to the point where each
printer would be too expensive for consumers," he said.

 The differences emerge in the way that a laser printer lays down ink on
the paper and which can be spotted with the Purdue system.

 Inkjet is next

 Typically, different printers lay down ink in distinct bands that can be
spotted by image processing software.

 "We extract mathematical features, or measurements, from printed letters,
then we use image analysis and pattern-recognition techniques to identify
the printer," said Professor Delp.

 Desktop printers coupled with scanners have become favourites with forgers
as they produce high-quality copies of banknotes and personal documents
that can fool a casual glance.

 The team is now working to extend its techiques to cover inkjet printers.

 The team is also working on ways to manipulate printers so they lay down
ink with more easily identifiable signatures.

 The researchers will present their detailed findings at the International
Conference on Digital Printing Technologies in early November.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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