New York’s senior Senator, Chuck Schumer, among many others, has advanced New York City’s formidable police commissioner, Ray Kelly, for the job of Secretary of Homeland Security, recently vacated by Janet Napolitano. A most worthy idea. Kelly has done a remarkable job in New York—shepherding the city through the horrors of 9/11 and reducing the crime and murder rate of America’s ground zero for tourists and terrorists to all but unprecedented lows. Of course, he’s also come in for a lot of heat for his backing of stop-and-frisk laws for his cops.
But now, if he heads to Washington, we must be prepared for him to bring along some other baggage. Typewriters. For the question, which the NYPD refused to dignify with a reply, was whether the PC, as he’s known, will be bringing his Smith Corona with him. Virtually every precinct in the city’s police department, every detective bureau, every administrative office, even in the high-tech headquarters of 1 Police Plaza, still makes use of typewriters.
Not for everything, of course. Last week, two NYPD officers boarded the No. 6 train at the East 77th Street location—as it happens, the stop used, on increasingly rare occasions by Mayor Mike Bloomberg who lives right around the corner. Both officers were loaded down with belts slung carelessly around their waists, off which hung revolver, handcuffs, stun gun and assorted other paraphernalia. The female officer reached down, unfastened a velcro tab and pulled out a squarish device that looked like a 22nd century cell phone, glanced at it, then replaced it quickly in the belt and velcroed it closed. “What’s that?” I asked. “Radiation detector,” she said solemnly. “Are we okay?” I continued. “Fine,” she smiled thinly.
But back in her precinct, if she has any forms to fill out, she might find herself rolling paper into a typewriter and going to work.
The NYPD is not alone, as it turns out. The Kremlin, too, is going back to the future. Sources in the Federal Guard Service—not unlike America’s Secret Service, charged with protecting the integrity of all Kremlin communications and the security of President Vladimir Putin, said it was looking to spend some 500,000 Rubles ($15,000) on German-made Triumph Adler TWEN 180 typewriters. Triumph Adler is a venerable brand, which now points out that it has transformed itself into dealing with the “documents business.” But it traces its roots back to 1898 and later merged with the old Royal typewriter company—remember the old, solid black iron upright Royals, with their little round keys that clacked against the paper? Well that, apparently, is their principal virtue today. How do you hack or monitor keys making an impact on a single piece of paper? Not very easily.
C-Net quotes the Russian newspaper Izvestia as reporting, “After scandals with the distribution of secret documents by WikiLeaks, the exposés by Edward Snowden, reports about Dmitry Medvedev being listened in on during his visit to the G20 summit in London, it has been decided to expand the practice of creating paper documents.” Of course, their announced budget wouldn’t buy more than a couple of dozen of the modern electric variety. But perhaps you’re looking more for vintage iron uprights, then you could probably be looking at a hundred or more. Visions of the Kremlin typing pool, sitting row on row like in an old black-and-white movie, churning out page after page of top-secret documents, one at a time.
Still, they may not even be single pieces of paper. One police officer remarked the other day that the NYPD was also still in the market for carbon paper. Carbon paper? Didn’t that last plant go out of business about the same time as the buggy whip factory? Indeed the first Dow Jones Industrial Average contained the preferred shares of United States Leather Co., in its day the size of Ford and GM. Its main output was buggy whips and accoutrements. But today, there’s still a company in Westfield, Massachusetts making buggy whips. It’s just a lot smaller.
So equally it is still possible to buy carbon paper. The city of New York plunks down a million dollars or so for it every year. But of course, as soon as you make a carbon, the security problems begin to multiply. First, you have the copy or copies. One, two, however many. Back in the 1970s at The New York Times, reporters would type each of their stories on “10-part books”—or an original and nine copies, disassembled by copy boys and distributed, sometimes by pneumatic tubes, to the various desks that would need a version of the story. The tenth copy, incidentally, was pretty faint, but if you squinted hard, still legible. Then the carbon was jettisoned. Ah, but there’s the rub. If you’re writing a top-secret memo for two other folks, at least two other copies of the carbon paper carry the impression. Caveat emptor. Typist, beware. Of course, it’s probably easier to place such potentially compromisable material under tighter scrutiny than it is to guard against an anonymous hacker with a talent for passwords operating halfway around the world under cover of darkness.
In the end, though, wouldn’t it really be easier simply to make sure we choose the secrets we do guard more carefully? We might be able to keep a closer eye on a smaller volume. It’s a little like putting all your eggs in one small basket, then you just watch that basket very, very carefully. Perhaps if Ray Kelly does move to Washington, he can look into all of this.
David A. Andelman is the Editor of World Policy Journal. Previously he served as Executive Editor of Forbes. Earlier, he was a domestic and foreign correspondent for The New York Times in various posts in New York and Washington, as Southeast Asia bureau chief, based in Bangkok, then East European bureau chief, based in Belgrade. He then moved to CBS News where he served for seven years as Paris correspondent, traveling through and reporting from more than 70 countries. He is the author of three books, most recently, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.