How expansive is electronic espionage?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly does not have a computer in his office, does not use email and does not have a private phone. I read a while ago that he even uses hand signals in some situations, although I can’t find the link now.

There’s every reason to believe many major national intelligence agencies have similar capabilities, they just don’t have Edward Snowdens willing or able to walk off with the proof. You know, imprisoned or dead families could be the consequence elsewhere.

So frustrated with U.S. snooping is Germany that it is considering going to old school typewriters, via The Guardian, Germany ‘may revert to typewriters’ to counter hi-tech espionage:

German politicians are considering a return to using manual typewriters for sensitive documents in the wake of the US surveillance scandal.

The head of the Bundestag’s parliamentary inquiry into NSA activity in Germany said in an interview with the Morgenmagazin TV programme that he and his colleagues were seriously thinking of ditching email completely.

Asked “Are you considering typewriters” by the interviewer on Monday night, the Christian Democrat politican Patrick Sensburg said: “As a matter of fact, we have – and not electronic models either”. “Really?”, the surprised interviewer checked. “Yes, no joke”, Sensburg responded.

While typewriters might be harder to spy on, they hardly are foolproof, as the U.S. Embassy in Moscow discovered back in the day (1986):

Soviets Bug Typewriters in U.S. Embassy

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Soviets Bug Typewriters in U.S. Embassy sounds

More on the typewriter espionage here:

… beginning in 1976, the KGB successfully installed sophisticated miniaturized electronic eavesdropping equipment and burst transmitters inside 16 IBM Selectric typewriters used by the staffs of the Moscow embassy and Leningrad consulate, which copied everything being typed on the machines, then periodically broadcast their take to KGB engineers manning listening posts just outside….

The first bugged IBM Selectric typewriter was discovered during a routine x-ray inspection at Ft. Meade on July 23/24, 1984. By the time the operation was completed, NSA technicians had found bugs inside 16 IBM Selectric typewriters, all of which had been shipped to Moscow and Leningrad between October 1976 and January 1984.

In the end, NSA concluded that the Soviets eavesdropping operation had most likely compromised every document typed on these 16 electric typewriters over the span of eight years from 1976 to 1984, but NSA and the FBI were not able to provide a more refined and detailed damage assessment because it had gone on for such a long time and because key documents about who in Moscow and Leningrad had used the typewriters had been destroyed by the State Department.

How did it go undetected for so long?

The spy devices were powered either by battery or directly from the mains supply which powered the electric typewriter itself. Once every 82 seconds the devices would transmit 400 microsecond radio bursts of eight encrypted keystrokes. In this way a record of what was being typed in the Embassy was passed directly to the Kremlin.

The Soviets cleverly included a remote on/off switching facility to turn off the data bursts if they felt that security had been stepped up and there was a danger the Americans might detect the devices.

So while using old school typewriters might afford some protection, it’s hardly foolproof.

The KGB was expert at bugging typewriters. Now a former KGB agent is the President of Russia. Yeah, switching to typewriters should work, just fine.