Would Giving Up Computers Protect Your Privacy?

Vladimir Putin wants to use typewriters to avoid an Edward Snowden situation. Could you actually do this?
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William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portable sits in his office at Rowan Oak, which is now maintained by the University of Mississippi. (PHOTO: GARY BRIDGMAN/SOUTHSIDEARTGALLERY.COM)

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portable sits in his office at Rowan Oak, which is now maintained by the University of Mississippi. (PHOTO: GARY BRIDGMAN/SOUTHSIDEARTGALLERY.COM)

The Associated Press is reporting today that the Russian intelligence service is upgrading some of its information systems to typewriters, for which they are ready to pay as much as $750.00 each, to avoid an Edward Snowden-type leak of digital information. The AP cited the Russian news service Izvestia. Apparently the Russian government already uses typewriters for some communications intended for leader Vladimir Putin. Would this tactic work for a normal person, who isn't the Russian head of state? Forget giving up Facebook and encrypting your email: Would radical de-digitalization actually protect a person's privacy in 2013?

The feds received two million consumer fraud and identity theft complaints last year, most of which had to do with private information getting stolen out of someone's mailbox.

Only if you also stopped using the regular mail.

Statistics from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, which crunches American crime stats for the Department of Justice, show that the feds received two million consumer fraud and identity theft complaints last year, most of which had to do with private information getting stolen out of someone's mailbox. Just under half the complaints involved benefit fraud, which is someone taking your social security or other ID information from a stolen letter and hijacking pension or disability checks. Credit card fraud was the second most-common complaint.

The DOJ stats don't parse the complaints by those that were the result of digital intrusion over old fashioned mailbox-rifling for bank statements. But the nature and number of complaints—if even a half-million social security numbers were digitally stolen, we'd know—implies the latter.

The result recalls the early ecommerce-era debate about privacy: On one hand, giving out private information online can be a crapshoot, but on the other, you probably hand your credit card to waiters only for them to disappear with it for several minutes all the time.

Non-financial privacy is a more subtle matter. New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner would have avoided considerable scandal had he gone analog. But in that case, he risked running afoul of photo lab porn-reporting policies, which differ by state and by company. Had he gone even more analog he'd have been guilty of public exposure, which is not usually a crime if committed online.

Maybe Putin's bit of theater will work. But threats of hard labor in Siberia will probably still work better. As for you: Stop reading this and go take in the mail.

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