Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Return of the typewriters
Monday, 30 September 2013 | Pioneer | in Edit

Snoopers feed easily on computer documents

Long after its obituary had been written, the humble typewriter is making a comeback for the unlikeliest reasons and in the unlikeliest places. There are reports that the Indian High Commission in the UK and certain offices of the Russian Government have switched over to typewriters for producing ultra-secret documents. The move comes in the wake of reports that America's National Security Agency has been snooping round the world, ferreting sensitive information from computers. This is in addition to the bugging devices placed to eaves-drop on conversations in the diplomatic missions of countries, both friendly and non-friendly to the US.

New Delhi had initially dismissed reports of spying, with Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid defending the vast US internet tracking programme as “not actually snooping”. But that was in July, and in the months since then, South Block seems to have concluded that unauthorised surveillance is a “serious violation of national sovereignty”. On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meet last week, Mr Khurshid joined hands with his counterparts from Brazil and South Africa to label such data interception as incompatible with “democratic coexistence between friendly countries”. The Ministers also called for tougher international norms. But it will be a while before any significant change in the law comes. And, by the time the laws are updated, technology will have moved ahead by leaps and bounds.

It is a tedious circle and our diplomats in London have seemingly decided to just opt out of it altogether. And so the archaic typewriters have been dusted clean and all classified conversations are now taking place in the gardens of the India House in Aldywch. Now, before you laugh this off, keep in mind that even the ever-so-secretive Russians agree that the more primitive a mode of communication is, the more secure it is. In fact, the Russian Defence Ministry, the Emergencies Ministry and the Special Services no longer produce electronic documents; all communication with the President happens on paper. But, while rehabilitating the typewriter may be a clever act, the move is not without problems.

For one, there is the immediate logistical issue of typewriters being scarcely produced. Back in 2011, Godrej and Boyce, India's last manufacturer of office-typewriters, had said that it had only 200 pieces left. Perhaps, it will now bounce back into business, with the Kremlin having earmarked 480,000 roubles for the purchase of new typewriters. On a more serious note though, Indian missions abroad and also the Government in New Delhi (where bureaucrats routinely use Yahoo! and gmail accounts for official communication) should focus on strengthening their online security systems. There was espionage before the NSA scandal and there will be espionage even if Indian diplomats go offline. Besides, New Delhi has a worrying history of losing and burning files anyway.

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