Saturday, May 11, 2019

Just the Fax, Ma’am

A few decades ago (back when fax machines were a good idea), we had a local business that somehow decided our home phone number was a fax line.  A dozen times a day the damn phone would ring, and when we answered it, we could hear the fax machine on the other end clicking and chirping, trying to make a connection. 

Eventually, I discovered the name of the business and called their regular phone number and politely explained about the daily mistake their fax machine was making.  The employee was very helpful.

“No, it can’t be us.  Must be a mistake at your end,” she said.

“What kind of mistake can I make that has your machine call us a dozen times a day?” I asked.

“Sorry, can’t help you.”  Click!

Challenge accepted.  

The Doc and I were about to go on vacation, so I connected our computer modem to the phone line and configured it to work as a fax machine—but for outgoing calls only.  Then I created a message for it to send.  I can’t repeat the exact wording of the message for fear that Google will change the rating of this blogsite, but the general gist was that if the business didn’t quit bothering us, I hoped the next time the owner went home his mother ran out from under the front porch and bit him on his sitter-downer. 

Using ‘copy all’ and paste in Microsoft Word only ten times, the fax was 512 pages long.  Then I set the fax machine up for infinite redial, making it try and retry until the entire message was successfully sent, and let it rip.  By the time we returned from vacation, we had stopped getting the annoying fax calls.

That was about the time that the use of fax machines should have vanished from the work place, anyway.  The time for fax machines has long since passed.  Today, there is simply no need for a fax machine, as it is impossible to find a single business anywhere that does not have an email address, but does have a fax machine. 

The few outdated businesses that continue to use fax machines probably do so in the belief that the machines are more secure.  This is about par with the belief that traveling by Conestoga wagon through hostile Injun country is safer than flying on an airliner.  A fax is far from safe, it is the digital equivalent of having unprotected phone sex.

To explain why, let’s start at the beginning.  (Bet you saw that coming.)

For centuries, long distance communication depended on the speed of the messenger, and whether the message was carried by man or horse, that was about 5 kilometers an hour over an extended distance.  You could extend the distance a little with carrier pigeons or by using drums, but neither method was reliable.

Semaphore, signaling first by flags and later by rotating mechanical arms, changed that dramatically.  First proposed in the sixteenth century, the first practical system was put in place in France during the revolution.  The first line consisted of fifteen towers stretching 143 miles, linking Paris with the front.  The first message was to report a victory over the Austrians.  The fact that the French had actually won a military engagement is even more amazing than the speed of transmission—the message had traveled at over 850 miles per hour!

Within a few years, a message could go from Paris to Venice in an hour.  A generation earlier, the message would have taken a month.  The semaphore system, called the Chappe System is beatifically described in Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, which was written in 1844 and set 30 years earlier:

The Count thought that the signal tower was "like the claws of an immense beetle" and feels wonder that "these various signs should be made to cleave the air with such precision as to convey to the distance of three hundred leagues the ideas and wishes of a man sitting at a table".

Dumas was way ahead of his time.  In the novel, the Count bribes the operator to send fake messages, deliberately causing a financial panic in Paris.  In essence, the Count of Monte Cristo was the world’s first hacker.

At its height, the semaphore system was comprised of 530 towers crossing 3100 miles.  France led the world in communication!  (And Napoleon still lost at Waterloo because he couldn’t send a one sentence message 15 miles.)

It didn’t take long before someone figured out that this system of sending messages could be simply adapted to sending pictures.  Overlay any printed message, drawing, or picture with a grid, then for each of the grid squares send a signal indicating that the square is either clear or dark.  At the receiving end, someone just fills out a corresponding grid to recreate the message.  Grids with large squares could be sent quickly, but the smaller the grid, the better the resolution.

This system worked so well that….well, that is pretty much still the way faxes work.    About the only improvement worth mentioning is that the grids got very small, and instead of indicating just dark and light, machines started indicating shades of gray and colors.  The technology got really fast over time, but the system still remains.

Telegraph lines eventually replaced semaphores (though the French typically resisted the new innovation until 1853 because….Well, the French are just resistant to any new idea that isn't French).  It wasn’t long before someone figured out a way to automate the system to transmit pictures over telegraph lines and the first such patent was granted in 1843.  That’s right, the digital fax machine is over 170 years old.

Improvements came rapidly and by the 1870’s it was faster to send a page of text as a facsimile than as telegraphic words, but the equipment was expensive, difficult to calibrate, and just not very popular.  Regular uses of the machines would not be standardized until the 1930’s, when their use became popular with newspapers wishing to send photos over telephone lines, but the machines were still relatively rare.

It was Xerox that popularized the system by marketing what it called “long distance xerography” in 1964.  As more and more businesses began using the machines, the standard—basically the size of the grid and the number of squares—was set.  And it is still set.  Fax machines are still pretty much using a system and standard that was set in the days of vinyl records and B&W television.

Today’s fax machines, however, are usually connected to computers in the form of multipurpose printers.    As I write this, my HP All-In-One Deskjet is by my side...and that is the problem.  No one was thinking about computer security in 1964, and they should have been because there are huge flaws in those old standards. 

You probably don’t want to hear this, but it is relatively easy to send a malicious fax to a distant fax machine and take over control of the machine.  And once you have control of that machine, it is a short trip to moving into the computer’s network.  This has been demonstrated repeatedly in recent years and Hewlett-Packard has issued more than a few security patches trying in vain to control this bug.  A lot of other companies making fax machines don’t even try to protect from this flaw.

If you really want to send data securely, do it by encrypted email.  There are several methods more reliable for the transmission of data than a fax machine using technology old enough to qualify for Medicare.

Cassette tapes, floppy disks, 8-track tapes, old cell phones, pagers, manual typewriters, disposable cameras—all of these old technologies still have people who swear by them.  And all of them are obsolete and should no longer be used by modern business.  If you want to use a manual typewriter, no one will or should try to stop you.  But, if my doctor wants to send my private medical files to my insurance company, someone should stop him from using 18th century technology.

One last flaw with fax machines.  How did I discover the name of the company that was making those daily annoying calls?  I turned on the fax program on my computer one day and printed out several of the daily faxes I was getting.  Do you really want the security of your data depending on whether or not a minimum wage employee dialed the correct phone number?


  1. One way to solve the privacy issue is to stay chronically broke. I managed this notable accomplishment by working for nonprofit organizations that actually do something rather than simply make millennials feel good about themselves. I have this meme that shows a guy in pajamas and fluffy bunny slippers in handcuffs. The captions says, someone stole my identity yesterday. Today he asked a judge to make me take it back!

  2. As Shakespeare is supposed to have said, "He who steals my purse steals trash....."