The information started coming in. Letter after letter it came, and the KGB Agents gave each other a knowing glance. They had done it — the information was coming straight to them courtesy of an exploit they placed inside the American Embassy in Moscow. It was brilliant, really.
Everything the Americans keyed in through certain means — every letter — was flying through the air over radio frequencies, mixed right in with local TV broadcasts, then right to their desks. At least, as long as the batteries had juice. The KGB was already working on a new model that could draw power from the device itself, eliminating the need for a separate power source.
By 1978, the Russians began locating and arresting American spies, who had no idea how their cover was blown. They would be tortured or even executed — and in some cases would swallow their suicidal Cyanide tablet to otherwise control their fate. Losing multiple high-level intelligence assets was concerning enough that the CIA called for a temporary shutdown of intelligence gathering in Moscow.
Charles Gandy, an electrical engineer at the United States’ National Security Agency (the “NSA”) was sent to Moscow in the Spring to assist in finding the possible source of the information leak. Upon arrival, he was shown a hole that had been broken into an internal wall, with a “chimney” inside. Using a flashlight, looking up, Gandy could see aluminum, a box, some wires. It appeared to be an antenna, with some sort of pulley system — that could be raised or lowered, almost like a dumbwaiter, within the 8-floor building.
By then, the Americans realized they shouldn’t have allowed their embassy to be built by the Russians.
They also realized that the building had no fireplaces.
Prior, the embassy had already been thoroughly swept for electronic bugs, but since the frequencies being used by its designers were interspersed in packets with strong local TV channels — and encrypted — nothing was found by the Americans, aside from the chimney antenna itself.
What good would the antenna do if nothing were transmitting to it?
What’s most surprising is that it was happening during the Cold War, a time when computers were not in widespread use yet. They had no modern Internet to piggyback off of — it was the late 1970’s. The Army had the Internet’s precursor, ARPANet, but by 1977 there were scarcely more than 100 machines connected to it. There was no WiFi yet either.
No, this ingenious bug was covertly built directly in to several IBM Selectric Typewriters.
The Soviets hacked typewriters.
In the 1970's.
More impressive, these typewriters were almost completely mechanical — they were not electronically storing buffers of characters typed as computers would.
While regular typewriters had an individual mechanical arm that stamped each letter onto the page, the IBM Selectric typewriter was different — it had a metal ‘ball’, which had all letters, numbers, and symbols for a given typeface on its outer surface. When a typewriter key was struck, the ‘golf ball’ as it came to be called, would only move as much as needed — tilting forward, backward, and side to side, to finally ‘center’ the letter being typed, and press it into ink and onto the page.
The speed at which the ball moves is actually quite impressive — and it allowed much faster typing than previous mechanical typewriters. So much more impressive that the Soviets were able to capture it’s movement and send it wirelessly.
The Soviets exploited the movement of the ‘golf ball’ by attaching tiny magnets on the arms that moved and tilted it. Movement was then captured into a small device that was hidden in a hollowed-out replica of a metal bar that was along the typewriter’s bottom frame, seemingly innocuous. If the ball moved 4 over, and 2 up, they knew it was the letter “C” for example. From there, two moves right, and one move up, might yield an “a”, and so on.
The only ‘character’ they couldn’t capture was the ‘space’ from the space bar — precisely because it was not a character actually typed. So the sentences the KGB received were all “runningtogether,withnospaces.” Just like that.
The device was capturing the movements, and hence, the characters, then this information was sent out in encrypted packets, commingled with the local TV band. The typewriter’s spying apparatus was even repurposing screws within the body of the typewriter to both work as an antenna, and as a power conduit to the device.
Gandy knew the Russians were somehow getting information. The embassy even had a special room to thwart this kind of thing — but if the typewriter was brought into such a room, it wouldn’t have prevented the leaks.
Gandy faced opposition at every level attempting to get the approval needed to do a thorough proper investigation, in part due to plain old denial — no one in the government wanted to believe that the Soviets had pulled something like this off, and had been listening to confidential info — potentially for years.
Eventually, Gandy was able to secure approval via President Ronald Reagan, who took a more proactive stance against Communism, to investigate properly — which entailed physically shipping all electronic devices from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow back to the United States for examination.
Only after the modified typewriters were X-rayed, and one additional coil of wire was caught by a keen eye — were the devices finally discovered — in 1984.
The original account of this true story appears in the by book Eric Haseltine, titled The Spy in Moscow Station (Macmillan, 2019)
Below is an excellent, in-depth video describing in great detail how the IBM Selectric typewriter worked — by user Chyrosan22, YouTube.com:
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