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Spy vs. spy on display at State

Government Computer News has followed technology developments in the State Department with great interest since the Reagan administration.

So we jumped at the chance to check out the pre-GCN State technology on display now in the lobby of the State Department Annex at 1400 Wilson Blvd. in Rosslyn, Va.

'Listening In: Electronic Eavesdropping in the Cold War Era' is an exhibit that pulls together spy technology circa 1955 through 1985. Produced by the Countermeasures Directorate's Office of Security Technology in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the show displays a large array of Cold War era surveillance technology, including wired microphones and radio transmitters.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow seems like it was one big recording booth in the 1960s. One photo shows Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. in 1960 holding a listening device that had been discovered inside a large wooden carving of the Great Seal of the United States, a gift from the Soviet Union in 1945. Hidden magnetic microphones were especially popular in U.S. embassies in Eastern Europe. These were small microphones attached to long wooden tubes that could be deeply recessed into embassy walls.

Even Cold War era typewriters had countersurveillance mechanisms built into them. Included in the exhibit is an IBM Selectric typewriter. It coupled a motor to a mechanical assembly, so pressing different keys caused the motor to draw different amounts of current that were specific for each key. Close measurements of the current could reveal what was being typed on the machine. To prevent these measurements, State Selectric typewriters were equipped with 'inertia' motors connected to a large flywheel. The spinning flywheel absorbed the stress of the mechanical assembly and masked the keys being typed.

Full disclosure: In my youth I worked as a clerk-typist at the State Department in the summers to earn money for college. I spent many hours typing State memos and telegrams in Foggy Bottom offices on an IBM Selectric typewriter. Machinery I used in college is now worthy of a historical exhibit. Farewell, sweet bird of youth, I am officially a geezer.

Now these old recorders and transmitters seem clunky and quaint. But how soon until our iPods and cell phones will be destined for attics of the future? Perhaps there will be an exhibit in 25 years on surveillance technology of the post-9/11 era. The winds of time will blow the dust of obsolescence on us all, including the technology that seems cutting-edge now.

For more on the exhibit, click here.

Posted by Trudy Walsh on Jul 24, 2008 at 9:39 AM


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