Soviet Spies Bugged World’s First Electronic Typewriters

Soviet Spies Bugged World’s First Electronic Typewriters

Keystroke loggers, which secretly record key presses on a computer keyboard, are today’s criminals’ tool of choice for stealing passwords, credit card details, and other secrets. However, keystroke loggers are not an invention of the internet age. In fact, the world’s most successful electric typewriter was bugged by the Russians using keystroke recorders as early as the mid-1970s.


The Pioneering IBM Selectric Typewriter

IBM’s “Selectric” typewriter, invented in 1961, became a revolutionary piece of office equipment and could be found in offices worldwide by the mid-1970s. This sophisticated machine was far more than a standard typewriter, offering interchangeable typeballs and superior typing speed and accuracy. Its popularity, however, also made it an attractive target for espionage.


The Soviet Espionage Breakthrough

Recently declassified US documents have revealed that the Soviets managed to produce keystroke loggers back in the 1970s and successfully installed them in at least thirteen Selectric machines at America’s Embassy and Consulate buildings in Moscow and St Petersburg. These keystroke loggers were a significant leap in espionage technology.


Ingenious Soviet Technology

The spy devices were ingeniously powered either by battery or directly from the mains supply of the electric typewriter. Once every 82 seconds, the devices would transmit 400 microsecond radio bursts of eight encrypted keystrokes. In this way, a record of what was being typed in the Embassy was passed directly to the Kremlin. This covert operation allowed the Soviets to access sensitive information without detection for several years.


Advanced Security Measures

The Soviets cleverly included a remote on/off switching facility to turn off the data bursts if they felt that security had been stepped up and there was a danger the Americans might detect the devices. Over a relatively short period, five different versions of the Soviet Selectric datalogger were developed and covertly installed. The last of these was finally detected by the American Government TSCM (Technical Surveillance Counter-Measures) teams in January 1984. Their discovery only added to the very high tensions between the superpowers at this time.


Height of Cold War Tensions

It should be recalled that just eight weeks previously, Soviet anti-aircraft facilities had misinterpreted ‘Able Archer’ (a NATO command post exercise) for an actual nuclear attack and had gone to their highest alert status. This period marked the height of the Cold War and is considered by many historians to be the closest the world came to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis.


The Evolution of Keystroke Loggers

The story of the Selectric typewriter bugging highlights that the concept of keystroke logging is not new. The techniques and technologies have evolved significantly, but the underlying principle remains the same. Today, cybercriminals use software-based keystroke loggers to infiltrate computers and steal sensitive information. This ongoing threat underscores the need for robust cybersecurity measures and constant vigilance in both personal and professional contexts.


If you are concerned about potential espionage or believe your company may be under surveillance, contact QCC Global today to discover how our TSCM services can safeguard your confidential information and ensure your peace of mind.

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