Ingenious Cold War keylogger the Russians used to bug Selectric typewriters in the US embassy

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/12/31/ingenious-cold-war-keylogger-t.html

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And today: Here, click on this link…

That was easy.

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Keylogger, good name for a techie band.

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Then:

  1. Seduce/threaten a member of the embassy staff.
  2. Blackmail them into taking a lot of pictures with the Minox camera you supply, recording every detail of the existing typewriter, including scratches and scuff marks.
  3. Create a duplicate typewriter.
  4. Get the staff member to give you access to the building after hours as a cleaner. (This may require poisoning a cleaner so they call in sick and you can take their place.) Take the Trojan typewriter, hidden in your cart, and make the swap.

And wigs. Lots of wigs.

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A solid aluminum bar, part of the structural support of the typewriter, had been replaced with one that looked identical but was hollow. Inside the cavity was a circuit board and six magnetometers.

But that wouldn’t show up on the xrays? Seems a bit more out of place than a coil in a switch.

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SIGINT be some crazy shit. It’s like pulling data off a modem from the flashing light on the front, or data from a computer from the electromagnetic emissions from the CRT (Van Eck phreaking). It seems like stuff made up for spy movies, but spy movies don’t tend to actually sound this crazy!

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From reading up about it, it seems that even though aluminum isn’t a great shield, a solid bar 10mm+ thick would still block a substantial amount of X-rays – so it might depend on the energy level.

But moreover, the tens of thousands of X-rays would probably have included everything in the entire office, so they might not have had too many images of the specific part of the typewriter involved. There may also have been other stuff nearby in the typewriter that accidentally camouflaged the addition – like if you take an X-ray from the top, and there’s another circuit board that’s part of the typewriter directly vertically aligned with the added board, at a glance it might just look like a jumble of electronics.

Or maybe they just missed it. Not having obvious power wiring would definitely make something like that much harder to identify!

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If only the rest of their industry had been as clever, the Russians would have won the Cold War.

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I saw Benjamin Zephaniah’s first typewriter today. That was pretty cool.

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I don’t think the CCCP was held back by lack of cleverness — Russians are exceptionally clever, especially at engineering. Just look at their space program, both then and now — they are still flying people into space using Soyuz, after all. USA? Boeing is failing at getting a freaking capsule into the right orbit.

No, the CCCP failed because it was a very corrupt, crappy system overall. They had awful leaders for the most part, with a tendency toward totalitarianism. When that’s what fuels a society from the top, I don’t think any amount of ingenuity can spare you from collapsing. It just comes down to when.

looks around, checks watch

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I particularly like this one:

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Daaaaaamn! Hahaha physics, it’s crazy! Crazy COOL. :sunglasses:

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How much of the soviet economy was directed towards military applications?

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Well, hell. We fucked with the HP copiers we sent to the USSR. Alls fair, etc…

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Watch looks back

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Not to mention that Sovet Union was a poor country, and got invaded by nazis.
I suppose that also building a surveillance state had its costs, not only on money but on people morale.

But when there’s a lot of corruption the economy will starve because most brilliant people will try either to escape or to blend in.

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Now all they have to do is call the oval office and ask.

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I wonder if there are any (unclassified) books or articles on blackmail as tradecraft.

I worry it’s not sustainable and IRL I suspect you’d have a target go full John Malcovich on you relatively quickly.

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blackmail is mentioned in this OSS manual, published in 1943.

Morale Operations Field Manual

It doesn’t seem to be OCRed, yet.

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A solid aluminum bar, part of the structural support of the typewriter, had been replaced with one that looked identical but was hollow. Inside the cavity was a circuit board and six magnetometers. The magnetometers sensed movements of tiny magnets that had been embedded in the transposers that moved the Selectric typing “golf ball” into position for striking a given letter.

I distantly recall reading something about this, but the report was that the KGB could tell from the audio of the typewriter’s keystrokes themselves what was being typed. (Perhaps both methods were used?)

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