x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The NSA can't bug this

The Kremlin uses off-line media such as typewriters to keep communications secure against cyer-spying. Sometimes the old ways have their advantages.

When did you last use a floppy disk? Send a telegram? Use a cassette tape? A rotary phone? A buggy whip? But we must not relegate the typewriter to the same scrapheap. This venerable device is, it turns out, back in use.

Last week, news reports that the Kremlin wants to buy 20 electric typewriters, plus extra ink ribbons, touched off a worldwide wave of whimsical speculation.

The purchase order came from the Federal Guard Service, the agency charged with protecting Russia's top leaders and vital secrets. Observers assumed this was a back-to-the-future reaction to revelations that some western security agencies routinely monitor electronic communication.

In fact, later investigation revealed that the Russians have been old-fashioned since the old days: the defence, intelligence and crisis-management ministries have long used typewriters (and carbon paper, we suppose) to keep sensitive documents from leaking. The preferred product has been the German Triumph-Adler.

Of course, spying was a flourishing trade even back when "hacking" more usually involved swords. It is humans, not gadgets, that can't keep secrets.

Still, it's reassuring, in a way, to know that typewriters are still in use; they were a reliably ubiquitous part of office life for more than 150 years. On the other hand, we still don't miss cassette tapes.