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back to article Russia's post-Snowden spooks have not reverted to type

Back on 12 July, world media uncovered a minor sensation: Russia's Federal Protective Service (aka Federalnaya Sluzhba Okhrany, Федеральная служба охраны or FSO in English) had issued a tender for typewriters to help keep its secrets, presumably since a typewriter can't be hacked. As the tender came to light not long after …

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Why laugh?

For certain purposes a typewritten note sealed in an envelope is pretty damned secure.

As for buying Triumphs - there's something to be said for having minimal scope for remote electronic interference in a vehicle.

I predict a rise in low-tech solutions for important functions as governments realise that they can't tame the internet and that computerising trivial functions in important equipment is just asking for trouble.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Why laugh?

'Certain purposes'?

I think not, Spycatcher gave enough detail to enable anyone with a little skill to remove and replace the contents of most 'sealed' envelopes and replace them after reading.

I also remember seeing, perhaps urban legend or a fiction but plausible, that you can record the sound of a typewriter and analyse it afterwards to deterine which keys were being stuck.

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Re: "record the sound of a typewriter and analyse it afterwards"

If there is any other ambient noise in the room (radio, phones ringing, people talking, other typewriters) then it will most probably make that process extremely difficult.

Not to say that the process would be easy under the best of circumstances.

Listening in to an electronic keyboard and analyzing the voltage differences, yeah, that I can buy. Listening to an audio recording of a busy office to single out a specific typewriter ? Not convincing at all.

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Re: Why laugh?

Here's an article about the keystroke capture thing:

http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2005/09/14_key.shtml

I guess it should be able to use it for typewriters as well.

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Bronze badge

Re: "record the sound of a typewriter and analyse it afterwards"

Multiple microphones would make things a lot more possible.

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Thumb Up

Russian humour, surely...

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Anonymous Coward

Original Izvestia article

Well, the original Izvestia article actually gives the correct RUB486K quote, not millions (may have been corrected after The Reg's piece was published, but unlikely, IMHO), and discusses at length the fact that various security organizations still use typewriters, listing various use cases. There is also a bit of discussion about the security and other risks of using paper only documentation.

It does quote an unnamed source as saying that after Snowden a decision has been made to "expand the practice of creating paper documents".

All in all, sounds like a non-story, and Vulture South's investigative effort, while generally commendable, could be short-circuited by asking the same Russian-speaking friend to read and translate the Izvestia article. The Google translation is lousy (and, inexplicably, gives the price in millions!), but could still be parsed well enough to get the major points.

-- A Russian-speaking friend

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Re: Original Izvestia article

There is a hidden story but its not the Snowden one. Obscure product + weird supplier + remarkably high price paid = bent government procurement.

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Re: Original Izvestia article

"Obscure product + weird supplier + remarkably high price paid = bent government procurement."

Y'know, this sounds like the Chicago school system, come to think of it. Probably a boondoggle to line some relative's pockets.

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Re: Original Izvestia article

"All in all, sounds like a non-story, and Vulture South's investigative effort, while generally commendable, could be short-circuited by asking the same Russian-speaking friend to read and translate the Izvestia article. The Google translation is lousy (and, inexplicably, gives the price in millions!), but could still be parsed well enough to get the major points."

I was under the impression, here, that *this* story was more to do with fact this was nothing new and the whole link of older technology use in sensitive areas was nothing to do with the Snowden 'revelations' and more akin to attributing reasons to make the story and its regurgitated offspring more marketable/mainstream/trendy/hip/cool/alarming/cuttingedge/blah/blah

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Coat

Errmm .....

It's all a bit of an enigma to me ....

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Perhaps it's just me

But wouldn't a pc with no networking hardware or usb ports locked in a room be just as secure as a typewriter yet much easier to use?

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Re: Perhaps it's just me

I think the advantage is that each typewriter is unique, and so documents can be traced back to the machine they were written on, with no way to fake it.

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Re: Perhaps it's just me

I going to be completely honest, In my young and naive teenage days (before I started reading Private Eye and the Reg) I pretty much ASSUMED this was done, and there was no way spooks were given things like laptops, and even if there were that they could remove them from buildings, I ASSUMED this is pretty much common sense, I also ASSUMED anyone doing anything on a laptop on a train or an airport must not be doing anything important, because everyone can see what they are doing.

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Re: Perhaps it's just me

Not only would an offline computer be just as secure, but at £500 per typewriter it wouldn't really be any more expensive. And you can already get printers to do watermarks so this typewriter fingerprint thing doesn't seem to add much either.

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Black Helicopters

Re: Perhaps it's just me

No, you'll just get Tom Cruise abseiling in through the air vent.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Perhaps it's just me

Providing the room doubled as a Faraday cage, maybe...

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Re: Perhaps it's just me

Mechanical typewriters are unique -- though in a room full of similar typewriters, someone with enough time can frustrate analysis somewhat by switching parts around between them. Electronic ones, not necessarily so (though inserting a steganographic serial number is certainly possible).

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Re: Perhaps it's just me

"(though inserting a steganographic serial number is certainly possible)."
There are certain HP colour laserjets that print a practically hidden yellow graphic on the page to track the printer. Obviously when viewed under only blue light, they become instantly visible as black though. Now, where did I put my tin foil hat...

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Borrow them...

Interzone has plenty of typewriters to lend if I remember correctly.

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Black Helicopters

Wouldn't OpenBSD or a secure Linux distro audited by the FSO do the job, or are we to assume that absolutely everything is compromised in some way?

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While it is possible (but extremely unpleasant) to fully audit an operating system and the tools to build (compile) it... it is effectively impossible to audit the hardware that is in place.

Take a network card / chip - it will be comparatively easy for the circuitry in that to have its own logic where instead of just dispatching the packets that the overlying operating system sends, it also copies contents of memory (a network card will have Direct Memory Access and is considered a trusted device) it processes them and sends them onto another destination as well. The operating system would never know because the network card would behave exactly as it should.

Of course this is a simplistic example, an external, trusted (hahaha) device could monitor the network traffic. A much more viable alternative is a keyboard that records keystrokes within the chip in the keyboard itself and these keystrokes can be later downloaded, replayed or depending on how clever you are with antennas, wirelessly broadcast them. This functionality already exists with USB dongles inserted between keyboards and computers.

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FAIL

No because they were looking for something usable by the average spook

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Post-2012 Manufacture

Interesting.

According to Triumph-Adler's 2003 annual report - available on their website as PDF - they shut down their typewriter division in FY2003. Are these being manufactured under licence, or is the premium just because the only way to manufacture them now is in a garage operation?

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Facepalm

Perhaps the use of Comic Sans

Would put people off reading it

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Re: Perhaps the use of Comic Sans

Wingdings FTW!

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Maybe they don't type on the typewriters

Maybe they need mechanical keyboards for some sort of non-electronic code machine they designed themselves. They remove the actual paper feed part of the typewriter and fill it up with special crypto rotors and what have you.

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None of the stories in the Western media directly referenced any primary source

I thought that's how journalism was done nowadays.

Someone issues a press release. Other news outlets copy and paste it. Sometimes verbatim, with no research done, no facts gathered and no witnesses interviewed.

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Anonymous Coward

Red rag to a bull

"...presumably since a typewriter can't be hacked."

That's like walking into the Mended Drum and announcing that your name is 'Vincent the Invulnerable'

Lets see.

Typewriter ribbons can be read after typing.

Hide a microphone in the unit, record the sound of typing.

If the frame hides the internal gubbins, why not go the whole hog and fit a set of limit switches under the unit to record keystrokes.

Carbon paper to make an easy copy.

And I'm sure, given enough time and money, it would be possible to make a roller that could read the impact of the head through the paper and record what has been typed on it. And if someone really want to read that top secret document, they will pour money on to it.

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Black Helicopters

I like the idea of a typewriter having a street price, like dodgy spivs are inviting people to go down alleyways and look at their wares. "For our special customers we have an IBM Selectric, or if you ask very nicely, I might be able to do you a deal on a Smith Corona."

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Anonymous Coward

Maybe

There is a warehouse full of forms (with duplicates) and instead of converting to a online form the Russians will keep buying typewriters to fill in the forms.

I suspect the forms where order in the recent years (at great expense) and someone does not want to get to winter in Siberia for making a mistake so they'll keep buying typewriters to fill them in.

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Typewriters, old spacecraft designs, and Night Witches

In the prehistoric, pre I-T days of my USAF service, electric typewriters *were* considered a security risk. And I saw only electric typewrites in my four years of active duty. Typewriters at least used for classified information,, as I recall, were off-the-shelf, but then..."hardened" is the only word coming to mind...by USAF so as to block atmospheric transmission of the keystrokes which could be intercepted...a pre-digital keylogger, as it were. So I can't help wondering if these typewrites purchased by the Russian spooks are electric. Also, it's no secret the Russians are historically-gifted at turning a perceived disadvantage into an advantage...especially at using stuff pre-dating present technology.. Witness the flight -safey record of the venerable, apparently invulnerable, Soyuz vs that of STS. The irony, you can cut it with a dull knife, we Yanks rely on a 50-year-old *Soviet!* design for crewed spaceflight! Further back, remember the Red Air Force "Night Witches" who, with relative immunity to Wehrmacht AAA tech, badgered the Nazis by night in their wood-and-fabric Polykarpov Po-2/U-2's?.

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Re: Typewriters, old spacecraft designs, and Night Witches

Po-2 had an advantage of surprise, no doubt. But such approach is not completely unique. Fairey Swordfish against Bismarck fits that bill very nicely. And a bunch of skiing Finns against mechanized Soviet division wasn't bad either.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_battleship_Bismarck

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Suomussalmi

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M7S
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Black Helicopters

The Reg lacks a Moscow bureau

That's just what you want us (and the Russians) to think

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Hacking typewriters??

Have a look at:

http://www.usbtypewriter.com/

As Mr. Spock would say: "Fascinating!".

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