Germany Goes Low-Tech To Foil U.S. Spying

Going off the grid is one way to shake off cyberspies. Germany is thinking about doing so by bringing back the typewriter, but Spy Museum historian Vince Houghton tells NPR's Scott Simon that it's not likely to work.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Spying is dangerous work but it has some perks, as 007 knows - high tech gadgets.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES BOND FILMS)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character) Stun gas.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character) X-ray document scanner.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character) A typical leather belt.

UNIDENTIFED ACTOR: (As Character) Smoke screen, oil slick,

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character) A standard issue radio directional finder,

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Character) Left and right front-wing machine guns.

SIMON: But Commander Bond, don't forget your typewriter. Germany is the latest to get on board with a new trend in spy gear. They're going low-tech to try to avoid cyber spies. A German politician named Patrick Sensburg announced on a news program that his country's intelligence agency has begun to use manual typewriters after learning the extent of NSA electronic surveillance, which made us wonder - would that really work? We're joined now by Vince Houghton, military and intelligence historian and curator for the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for being with us.

VINCE HOUGHTON: Oh, it's great to be here.

SIMON: Is this a drastic step?

HOUGHTON: It's a drastic step in certain circumstances in that it's a very low-tech response to a high-tech threat - the high-tech threat being American intelligence and the capabilities that organizations like the NSA have to eavesdrop on computers or on electronic communications. That's not the first time that intelligence agencies or countries have had to go low-tech in order to feed a much higher technologically advanced rival. With East Germans - the Stasi used to do to prevent eavesdropping inside their very important meetings - they used clear plastic furniture so that it was obvious that they weren't being bugged, as you could see a bug if you tried to bug it. It's a very low-tech solution to a high-tech problem. I put this in the same ballpark as that. You're not going to be directly spied on by the NSA with a typewriter. But we did a lot of spying before the age of computers. We have ways to still spy on you, even if you go low-tech and completely off the grid.

SIMON: So this is just a hold the line until they can come up with something else?

HOUGHTON: The basic idea is the Germans feel they have to do something. Their population is up in arms about these revelations, not only about last October, finding out the NSA was spying on Angela Merkel, but the recent revelations that members of German intelligence and perhaps German military have been spying for the United States. The Germans...

SIMON: And we should remind ourselves Germans in particular might be sensitive about this because coming out of the period of Stasi and East Germany.

HOUGHTON: Well, and even further back than that the Gestapo. There's a natural reaction to these revelations by the German public. And so the German government feels as though that it needs to do something, whether that's kicking out the chief of station for the CIA, which they just did from Berlin, or if it's telling them that we're going to go back to a low-tech solution to potential eavesdropping like the typewriter. One way or another, this is not going to be long-lasting. It's too difficult to run a country the size of Germany or the size of anyone going purely typewriter communication. There's a reason we use computers. There's a reason we use this kind of electronic communications.

SIMON: So review for us some of the ways that you can eavesdrop on type writer technology.

HOUGHTON: Well, there are several ways. There's an old-fashioned human intelligence way and we call this Humint (ph) using human intelligence sources to look at typewriter ribbons to - used to - when you wanted to make copies of something, you used carbon paper. Those can be pulled out of the trash by human intelligence assets. There's a more advanced way of doing it, using computers to analyze audio signatures. Each typewriter...

SIMON: Yes, there is a belief that each key makes a distinct sound, right?

HOUGHTON: Yeah, or at least each key makes a distinct sound based on its position on the keyboard. So you may be able to not determine exactly what key is being pressed, but you can determine what quadrant. And then using some basic cryptography, you can code-break that to break into plain text.

SIMON: I've got to tell you, when we saw the story this week, I was glad because it gives us an opportunity to play one of half a dozen music pieces that had been written over the years that actually feature the typewriter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TYPEWRITER")

SIMON: Leroy Anderson "The Typewriter," right? Vince Houghton, military and intelligence historian and curator for the International Spy Museum. Thanks so much for being with us.

HOUGHTON: It's a pleasure to have been here.

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