To avoid e-document theft, Russia turns to paper and type

11/07/2013

Lots of people use paper towels to clean up leaks – but we’ve heard about a way paper is being used to prevent leaks of a much more serious nature.

Earlier this year, several world news outlets shared the news that Russia’s Federal Protective Service (FSO) had budgeted 486,000 rubles – just under $15,000 – for new electric typewriters, along with ribbons and other accessories.  By using typewriters and paper for sensitive or classified communications, the FSO, which is charged with protecting important government personnel including Russia’s president and prime minister, hopes to prevent the kind of electronic document leaks related to the recent WikiLeaks scandal.

The UK’s Telegraph newspaper quoted Nikolai Kovalev, former director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, speaking to Russian newspaper Izvestiya: “From the point of view of security, any means of electronic communication is vulnerable. You can remove any information from a computer. There are means of defense, of course, but there’s no 100 percent guarantee they will work. So from the point of view of preserving secrets, the most primitive methods are preferable: a person’s hand and a pen, or a typewriter.”

In addition to being safe from electronic theft or distribution, typed paper documents are easier to trace to their source. Each individual typewriter has its’ own unique “signature,” due to minute differences in type patterns and mechanical operation. Computer printers don’t exhibit this type of identifiable signature.

News sources including USA Today, The Guardian, Huffington Post and other international media all reported on the story. The New York Post ran the headline, “Russian government goes back in time; will use typewriters to leak-proof sensitive classified documents,” which unfortunately (and unfairly) implies that paper documentation is somehow a thing of the past.

The truth is, electronic document vulnerability is a very real concern. In addition to government intelligence records, proprietary or sensitive business records (including financial records, vendor lists, or client information) can be targeted for theft, as can personal correspondences via email or text. Identity fraud (through appropriation of personal information, such as a credit card number, that has been stored or transmitted electronically) affects thousands of people every day; in 2010, more than 8 million Americans reported being the victims of identity fraud (source: Congressional Research Service report to Congress.)

What’s more, typewriters and paper documentation are still necessary for many specific uses. One recent Wall Street Journal article noted that many states have laws requiring that permanent records, such as death certificates, must be filled out by hand or typed. Funeral homes, government agencies, and even prisons still rely on typewriters to create physical copies (i.e., paper, not virtual) of permanent records. This NBC News story relates how typewriters are becoming increasingly popular among a demographic too young to remember a time before “keystroking” had supplanted “typing” as a necessary skill. As one young student tells reporter Stephanie Gosk, “When you’re sitting at (a typewriter), you almost feel like you can be like Ernest Hemingway or Jack Kerouac.”

Permanent, secure, and an elegant form of artistic expression –typed documents are still a necessary part of our world, even in this “digital age.”