German loss of trust heralds return of typewriters

Many Germans have personally experienced mass state surveillance by the Stasi, hence the move to use typewriters to prevent NSA survellance.

German loss of trust heralds return of typewriters
German loss of trust heralds return of typewriters

The German government may have ace up its sleeve to counter the pervasive US surveillance revealed by the whistleblower former NSA operative Edward Snowden in the shape of typewriters.

According to Patrick Sensburg, head of the German Parliament's enquiry into NSA activity, email usage in government circles may become redundant, as German politicians are weighing up using typewriters and the age-old paper memo system to communicate.

Interviewed on the Nordic Morgenmagazin TV show on Monday evening, Sensburg - who is also a Professor at the College of Public Administration of North Rhine-Westphalia in Münster - said that if German politicians start adopting typewriters, they will be using manual, rather than electronic, models.

Interestingly, Sensburg's comments come in the wake of reports that the Russian government spent around £8,000 on typewriters whose typewritten text could be traced back to the specific machines. The typewriters were introduced as a result of the Edward Snowden revelations.

The Russian government has a history of luddite pragmatism as, when NASA astronauts famously visited the Baykonur Cosmodrome in the mid-1990s, they reportedly laughed at the clockwork mice running around a magnetic stripe track inside the cockpit of the Soyuz spacecraft, only to be told the system was developed to counter the high levels of cosmic radiation in space that can knock out many computer systems.

Commenting on the reports of the switch to typewriters in the face of pervasive electronic surveillance, Steve Smith, managing director of security consultancy Pentura said that the move will, in essence, be removing one set of data protection problems only to replace them with another.

"While documents will no longer be directly accessible by the Internet, wearables and smartphones mean that they are only a photograph away from becoming digital." he warned, adding that it is undoubtedly easier to mislay a memory stick than a filing cabinet of documents, but the consequences of misplacing a paper document - and using a compromised Internet connection - would be identical.

"It's often easy to forget that information in paper files and documents can be just as sensitive, and prone to mishandling, as electronic data. All information, irrespective of format, needs to be considered in data security audits and needs to be covered by policies that govern its access, usage, storage and disposal," he explained.

Rafael Laguna, CEO of Open-Xchange, the German software house, said that reverting to paper and typewriters is perhaps a slight overreaction, but it does demonstrate unease in Germany around the alleged activities of the NSA and surveillance from other states.

"The shadow of the Stasi looms large and many Germans, including myself, have personally experienced mass surveillance and state intrusion and it's not a situation that anyone is keen to return to," he said.

Trust, says Laguna, needs to be restored in communication channels, and currently the only way to ensure this is for governments, businesses and individuals to adopt more secure, encrypted methods for communicating data.

"People have become used to the convenience that modern technology has afforded them and in many cases are either not prepared to or don't know how to add an extra stage, such as encryption, to their correspondence procedures," he said, adding that Germany may be the most vocal country opposed to surveillance, but there is a growing disquiet globally to state-sponsored intrusion.