Germany considers the ultimate antidote to high-tech espionage: The humble typewriter


Artifact at Kiplinger's offices: a 1933 Typewriter owned by W.M. Kiplinger.

Germany is considering going back to the trusty old typewriter to counter alleged spying by the U.S. government.

In an interview with the TV service Morgenmagazin, a politician in charge of a parliamentary inquiry into U.S. spying in Germany said that the government is seriously considering a low-tech solution to the ongoing espionage problem, according to the Guardian.

Asked "Are you considering typewriters?" by the interviewer, Christian Democrat politician 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.

Last week, Germany asked the CIA's station chief to leave the country after German investigators uncovered alleged spying operations, at a time when many Germans are still angry over the exposure last year of widespread U.S. surveillance programs whose targets included Chancellor Angela Merkel.

After former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden released the first of his revelations about the U.S. government's surveillance activities, Russia said that it would also revert to the typewriter.

Russia's Federal Guard Service, which protects Russian officials, put in an order for 20 Triumph Adler typewriters last year, according to the Russian newspaper Izvestiya.

But as clever (and depressingly regressive) as the tactic seems, the typewriter wouldn't necessarily make Germany's communications spy-proof.

Technology has made spying from thousands of miles away a much easier and more cost-effective proposition. But before computers, spying was done the old-fashioned way -- and there's no reason why it can't be done that way again, according to Vince Houghton, an expert on intelligence history at the International Spy Museum in Washington.

"We certainly spied on people before the age of computers and were able to pull stuff off typewriter ribbons," Houghton said in an interview. "As technology advanced, we've lost some of the capabilities of doing those kinds of missions…it takes human intelligence; you have to have an asset on the ground to pull the typewriter ribbons out of the trash."

Outrage over American spying in Germany has reportedly reached fever pitch. People in Germany's government are wary of even basic forms of communication like talking on the phone or sending e-mails. So they've gone back to some of the more enjoyable features of the pre-Internet age: coffees and walks in the park, according to the Guardian:

"Above all, people are trying to stay away from technology whenever they can", wrote Die Welt.

"Those concerned talk less on the phone, prefer to meet in person. More coffees are being drunk and lunches eaten together. Even the walk in the park is increasingly enjoying a revival."

That can't be such a bad thing, even if it is all very much temporary.

"It's incredibly difficult to go back to typewriters," Houghton noted. "There's a reason we moved to computers and communicating electronically. It's much much easier."

Abby Phillip is a general assignment national reporter for the Washington Post. She can be reached at abby.phillip@washpost.com. On Twitter: @abbydphillip
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