Security Corner

Jul 17 2014   4:15PM GMT

Stop electronic surveillance with typewriters?

Ken Harthun Ken Harthun Profile: Ken Harthun


In the wake of recent news about Germany’s considering using typewriters instead of computers to thwart electronic surveillance, one has to ask the obvious question: Huh?

Oh, they have to be manual typewriters. Electric ones just won’t do (you can plug in a keylogger to an electric one, apparently). Makes sense, especially in light of how IBM Selectric typewriters were hacked in the 1980s. Here’s how an installed spy sensor (bug) worked, according to CBS News:

“The devices picked up the contents of documents typed by embassy secretaries and transmitted them by antennas hidden in the embassy walls. The typewriters used a round ball with numbers and letters around the surface, which revolved before hitting the ribbon against the paper. The bugs could work out each letter typed by detecting how the ball moved.”

I don’t think that manual typewriters would solve this problem. Someone will develop a way to tell which key was pressed by the audio spectrum analysis of the “clack” sound the letter hammer makes as it hits the ribbon and paper. It doesn’t even have to be so complicated. You can just go back to the old low-tech spy methods like posing as a janitor and stealing the ribbons or relying on security lapses and stealing documents that should have been shredded.

Spying isn’t going to go away no matter the technology being used. Only on the day when we can fully trust each other will spying become unnecessary.

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