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Russia's post-Snowden spooks have not reverted to type

Typewriter tender reveals FSO wants ribbons for old machines, not just new kit

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Back on 12 July, world media uncovered a minor sensation: Russia's Federal Protective Service (aka Federalnaya Sluzhba Okhrany, Федеральная служба охраны or FSO in English) had issued a tender for typewriters to help keep its secrets, presumably since a typewriter can't be hacked. As the tender came to light not long after Edward Snowden started divulging secrets, dots were joined to suggest Russia's intelligence services were moving to a pre-PC world to enhance security.

A little delving into the tender, however, suggests to The Register that typewriters never went away at the FSO.

Here's one example of the story, from The Guardian, which put it this way:

“In the wake of the US surveillance scandal revealed by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden, Russia is planning to adopt a foolproof means of avoiding global electronic snooping: by reverting to paper.

“The Federal Guard Service (FSO), a powerful body tasked with protecting Russia's highest-ranking officials, has recently put in an order for 20 Triumph Adler typewriters, the Izvestiya newspaper reported.

“Each typewriter creates a unique "handwriting", allowing its source to be traced, the report said.”

That story is still circulating, picking up various embellishments along the way, but something occurred to Vulture South: as far as we could tell, none of the stories in the Western media directly referenced any primary source.

The story referenced by The Guardian is here at Izvestia, or if you don't read Russian, here.

(Either the original or the translation carries a howler, by the way, setting the value of the contract at 486 million roubles, rather than 486 thousand roubles.)

That, however, is merely a story about a tender that appeared on the government's official tender site. Finding the tender took more work, but thanks to a Russian-speaking friend of The Reg it eventually turned up here (Google translation).

So what is The Register able to report, having found the original tender?

We can confirm that the FSO tendered for typewriters. The tender asks for 20 of them, as reported.

We can also confirm that the tender was issued after Ed Snowden's revelations. But the tender documents, so far as we can tell after relying on web-based translation services, don't mention typewriters as being acquired to enhance security. Reports suggesting this is the case only come from Izvestia, which says it has sources for the allegation.

There is no such discussion in the tender documents, which do contain remarks saying the FSO won't accept electronic tenders. Might that have been conflated into the security angle?

We also know the tender has been won, by one "Marina V Zaika, solo entrepreneur". She's done very nicely out of it: at 486,000 roubles for the whole contract, she'll reap a cool 24,300 roubles for each machine. From our quick perusal of European office equipment sites, the Twain T180's street price is currently around 125 Euros apiece, or about 5,500 roubles.

Perhaps the inflated price recognises that new Twain T180s might be hard to come by, a suggestion we make because the tender demands that they not have been manufactured prior to 2012.

Consumable clues

Another reason for the amount of cash on offer is that the tender also suggests, contrary to the widespread impression that the FSO is “reintroducing” typewriters, that they never completely went away.

How can The Register say this with certainty? Because the tender also seeks ribbons and correcting tape for a completely different model of typewriter from another manufacturer.

That model for which the ribbons are sought is the Olympia “Comfort”. Over at Olympia's site, the "Comfort" isn't mentioned as a product still on sale (but we are willing to concede the "Carera De Luxe might translate as "Comfort".

Since the tender isn't trying to buy Olympia machines but does seek consumables, we conclude the Comfort is already used within the FSO.

Perhaps the agency has used typewriters for years as a secure means of communications and, in a post-Snowden panic, has decided it needs more?

Whatever the reason, the amount of consumables ordered isn't huge, and certainly not enough to see the FSO paying street price for the typewriters it wants.

For now, all we have conclusive evidence for is that the FSO is willing to pay a premium for some new Triumphs. That seems, to The Register, to warrant investigation on grounds of wasteful procurement alone, but regrettably The Reg lacks a Moscow bureau … ®

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