Why typewriters are all the rage in Moscow

Hint: It may have something to do with whistleblowing

(Image credit: Tom Grill/Corbis)

Edward Snowden leaked a veritable treasure trove of national security data using little more than a small thumb-drive and a burning desire to set information free, highlighting just how easy it is for a disgruntled government employee to leak sensitive files electronically.

Now, according to the Guardian, Russia is planning to adopt a "foolproof means of avoiding global electronic snooping" by turning back the clock...sort of. Namely, the Federal Guard Service (FSO), which is in charge of protecting top-ranked Russian officials, is investing 486,000 rubles (about $14,000) to purchase 20 typewriters for government use.

These machines are a far cry from the cool, mechanical kind you would picture Jack Kerouac or John Updike hunched over. According to the Russian newspaper Izvestia (and interpreted using Google Translate), the electronic typewriters are a model called the "Triumph Adler TWAIN 180," which are of German origin and have the tinge of mid-'90s design.

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They're ugly.

Each unit will also come with its own "peculiar handwriting," notes Izvestia, so officials can determine which machine a supposed leaked document came from when inspected closely.

But why typewriters?

"Any information can be taken from computers," Nikolai Kovalev, an MP and former head of the Federal Security Service, tells Izvestiya. "Of course there exists means of protection, but there is no 100 percent guarantee that they will work. So from the point of view of keeping secrets, the most primitive method is preferred: A human hand with a pen or a typewriter."

Russia is hardly the only foreign country to have a relationship with an outdated office technology. In Japan, which the New York Times notes is "renowned for its robots and bullet trains," there is still a deep, pervasive attachment to fax machines; as of 2011, 100 percent of business offices and 45 percent of homes still use the grating dial-up machines consistently.

As Ars Technica notes, though, Russia's typewriter investment may not be a direct response to the U.S. government's recent security troubles, as the Guardian paints it to be. An insider FSO source tells reporters that the order was actually placed more than a year ago.

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Chris Gayomali is the science and technology editor for TheWeek.com. Previously, he was a tech reporter at TIME. His work has also appeared in Men's Journal, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among other places. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.