Lots of offices in lots of industries deal with materials that require discretion. Whether it's a military intelligence unit handling classified documents or a law firm planning strategy for a case or just someone who wants to keep business plans out of competitors' hands, secrecy is an important part of business. So it's understandable why Canon thought there might be a market for its new office printer, the Uniflow 5. But the somewhat Orwellian new features of the Uniflow 5 might go a bit too far in protecting company secrecy.
Every time you send a document to the Uniflow 5 for printing, it automatically scans for certain phrases or keywords that have been embargoed. For example, if you worked at the FBI, your bosses might set the Uniflow 5 to make sure you're not printing any documents with the phrase "spy on Greenpeace," or at BP, managers might prefer no one print anything with the words, "2009 report on safety concerns at Deepwater Horizon."
If the Uniflow 5 finds an embargoed phrase, it will automatically block printing and--here's where it gets creepy--send an email to your boss reporting exactly what you tried to print and when. In other words, it will turn you in, letting your company keep tabs on what you're printing.
But the Uniflow 5 isn't just Orwellian--it's downright Kafkaesque. Alan Lu of IT News reports, "The system can optionally inform the user by email that their attempt has been blocked, but without identifying the keyword in question, maintaining the security of the system." In other words, you might not even know why your document is forbidden. But Lu explains that, like any system, it is far from foolproof. "A determined user who has guessed the prohibited keyword could get around it by simply substituting numbers or other characters for letters, such as z00 instead of zoo, representatives for Canon conceded."
Princeton professor Ed Felten, expressing little faith in the Uniflow 5's ability to suppress all thoughtcrime, quips, "Prediction: will be buggy, hilarity will ensue."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.