Are Russian spies switching to typewriters to avoid interception?

Dmitri Medvedev and Vladimir PutinBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | |
For the first time in over a decade, a Russian government department has decided to purchase typewriters, allegedly in order to safeguard classified documents against electronic interception. Russia’s Federal Protective Service has reportedly placed an order for the purchase of an estimated 20 typewriters, for 486,000 rubles –roughly US$15,000. The agency, known in Russia by its initials, FSO, is responsible for protecting high-ranking government officials, including the President of the Russian Federation, and is also tasked with operating federal emergency communications systems. It is the institutional descendant of the Soviet KGB’s Ninth Chief Directorate, which ceased to exist in 1992. According to the daily Russian broadsheet Izvestia, the FSO initially considered purchasing the typewriters in 2010, in response to a series of massive leaks of United States government classified documents by whistleblower website WikiLeaks. An unnamed source inside the FSO told the paper that the final decision to purchase the typewriters was made shortly after revelations made last month by former Central Intelligence Agency computer expert Edward Snowden. The self-styled whistleblower told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that British and American intelligence agencies targeted the electronic communications of heads of state and other senior officials during a G20 summit held in London in 2009. A principal target of the alleged spy operation was the then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who headed the Russian delegation at the G20 summit. Interestingly, the FSO source told Izvestia that the initial purchase 20 typewriters will be followed by more orders, as large segments of Russia’s security establishment appear to be switching to typewriters as a means of producing classified documents. The paper reports that the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Emergency Situations, as well as the country’s “special services” —a reference to the intelligence establishment— are “already [experimenting with] generating documents using non-electronic media”. The source added that some of the daily intelligence briefings for Russian President Vladimir Putin are already being produced in non-electronic format.

12 Responses to Are Russian spies switching to typewriters to avoid interception?

  1. Paul says:

    If these typewriters are electromechanical or the later electronic ‘golfball’ versions they’ll be wasting their money. Methiods to intercept and interpret each key/character exists. I think the sound a standard keydrive typewriter is also subject to a similar interpretation.
    MI5 were certainly using the pulses and sounds from the keyboard of Hagelin Coding Machines to take the product en clair; the method was codenamed ENGULF.

  2. Carl says:

    If memory serves it was rather common practice during the cold war to use bugs that either picked of the sounds of the typewriter and I believe there were versions that picked up electrical impulses when the electric ones came out. FSB and their affiate organizations are not stupid so it stands to reason they have some methods to mitigate the scope of that approach to bugging the typewriters. In any event any systemwide policies across the Russian national security establishment would have to have some sort of electronic “echo” that is courier or typed orders or policies that where of any significance across their entire enterprise could not be hand carried or whatever to every element so it would have to be reflected in electronic communications somehow.

  3. Peter Wallerberger says:

    With a workforce of in excess of 20,000 (excludeing uniformed personel) it is laughable that the FSO has bought but 20 typewriters !!
    What do staff do when they want to use one – book a month in advance ?? There would be a waiting line of dark suited individuals right across Red Square !

    The concept is correct but the facts/figures divulged by the Russians are as usual – in themselves a form of disinformation !!

    As for intercepting manual and electronic emissions from typewriters, it is not as easy as suggested.

    A half decent electric fan will cover much of the speech and emissions. Copper clad rooms will also make interception near impossible. Vibrations introduced to glass windows will negate most harmonic resonance etc. Then one has to make allowance for the level of encription the Russians use – they are not that backward !! (It is in their interest for the West to think that they are !!)

    The danger is that even after you intercept something covertly you don’t know if you are being fed something or not !!
    The fact the information is covertly obtained tends to give intel producers and their intel customers a false sense of information values sometimes acted upon without a shred of corroborating evidence.

    Next thing they are going to tell us theyre conducting experiments useing raceing pidgeons as couriers ??
    I’d like to see the NSA intercept that one !! Wonder what court would have to approve that piece of intercept legislation ??

    Electronic monitoring and interception is fine BUT as we know , Intelligence organisations have tended to use this as a cost effective option to offset to the costs of HUMINT – officers in the field,
    when the two resources should instead have been complimentary.

    Of course to successfully operate both in todays fast moving world, Intelligence institutions need to be properly funded and supported by the Government of the day, rather than ‘farmed out’ to self professed privately owned and operated civilian ‘expert contractors’.

  4. Pete says:

    I think in view of Snowden affair what may be playing on Russian minds is the risk of using personal computers to download the most sensitive Russian documents.

    A manual typewriter doesn’t have access to Top Secret databases or have the capability of downloading the database onto 4 laptops – as Snowden did.

    Perhaps the initial typewriter buy is a trial – with the possibility typewriters will be put back into production in Russia.

    I imagine other countries may go the typewriter route.

  5. Peter Wallerberger says:

    Bring back the ‘Registry Queen’s’ !! – That should cheer Paul.B up somewhat. :)

  6. Paul says:

    Russia has been the world’s worst at intercepting typewriters in use and embarrarrased the US Embassy Moscow by bugging a number of their machines using advanced devices that not only alerted the ‘buggers’ when machines were turned on but identified which machine and then sent the stored product using burst transmission. Those bugs could also be stunned when not in use to ensure that security sweeps around the target typewriters would not disclose anything.

    The machines they have purchased are reportedly Triumph Adler Twen 180 and/or the Olympia Comfort which are both electronic, use microprocessors and dot matrix printing.

    There will be an electronic ‘haze’ that could doubtless be exploited but I suspect the real reason is to stop exploitation of the product by employees.

    You’ll probably see a sudden surge in the purchase of Minox cameras, which is how it was done before the USB stick appeared on the scene :)

  7. Paul says:

    Excellent idea Peter, I’d really no idea they’d gone to be honest …………………..

  8. Pete says:


    “… but I suspect the real reason is to stop exploitation of the product by employees.”

    Then you agree with what I said above?!



  9. Paul says:

    Of course Peter – should have said but I was getting heady on the idea of bringing back the typing pool

  10. Pete says:

    Thanks Paul

    I wonder if the Russians will bring in CCTVs (hidden or obvious) in each room to counter the Minox or photocopy machine brigade?


  11. Peter Wallerberger says:

    I still miss the manual card system but I guess the Greenies would object and the personel wage bill for an addittional 5,000 female employees would be difficult to explain. The most positive aspect would be an empowered workforce and high morale for all employees at MI.5 & MI.6 !!

  12. Paul says:

    The latest DSC from Minox is a bit hit or miss to be honest but they are making film available for older models suddenly.

    The manual carding system – Burroughs Sensimatic rules!

We welcome informed comments and corrections. Comments attacking or deriding the author(s), instead of addressing the content of articles, will NOT be approved for publication.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: