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Lessons Learned from Death of the Telegraph

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The Telegram, 1844-2006.

I noticed in my local newspaper the other day that Abraham Lincoln'semail system had just been shut down after 150 (or so) years of service.No kidding, the telegraph system is now defunct. I'm not exactly put outby the termination of Western Union's telegraph service, but I do thinkit's worthy of a bit of consideration in today's Internet context.

Invented in 1844 and built on top of Samuel Morse's eponymous codingsystem, the telegraph system was used by generations of people to sendshort messages to friends, family, and colleagues for all sorts ofpurposes. My father, for example, sent a telegram -- which I still have-- from a Royal Air Force base in England to my grandparents in Pretoriaannouncing my birth many years ago.

Transmitted messages were converted into a series of dashes and dotsbefore being sent by the system's operators. Workers at the receivingstation then converted the dashes and dots back into alphabeticalcharacters and delivered the message themselves to its rightfulrecipient. It was, without a doubt, a form of electronic mail. As such,it's interesting to compare this long-lived system with our current emailsystem, which many claim is facing imminent extinction due to spam,phishing, and the like.

Just what qualities did the telegraph system have that enabled it to livefor so long? More to the point, what security ramifications should weconsider? Surely there is value in considering the security of an emailsystem that survived for so long.

Before we do, though, it is worth pointing out that the telegram'spassing appears to be due entirely to it losing the popularity war vs.today's email and fax systems, and not because of any underlyingtechnical flaw per se. At its peak in 1929, Western Union's telegraphsystem saw more than 20 million telegrams pass through it, whereas in2005 only some 20,000 telegrams were sent.

Now let's consider those security ramifications...

When telegrams were sent and received, it was typically (at least in itsfirst 100 or so years) done via the local Western Union office. That isto say there was always some level of trust in the station where themessage was sent from and to. That's certainly not the case with ouremail systems today. Even though many ISPs require end users to sendoutgoing mail through the ISP's own email (SMTP) servers, many don't.Additionally, let's not discount all of the webmail services that bypassthis mechanism entirely. Likewise for receiving email, ISPs providemailbox services via POP3 and IMAP, etc., but many users (myselfincluded) prefer to use our own domains for incoming email.

So email services in the Internet context are far more distributed thanthose for the telegram services were. But was there really much securityto be gained from having the sender identify and authenticate himself atthe Western Union office? Perhaps some, but probably not all that much,truth be told.

However, another fundamental difference between the two systems is thatthe sending party paid for the message to be sent. To my knowledge, thetelegraph system had no equivalent of a flat-rate account that allowedpeople or companies to send an unlimited amount of messages for one setfee. Before I go any further here, I should point out I am not advocatingemail fees per message sent. But I will say we'd likely have a lot lessspam and other unwanted trash in our inboxes if the sender had to pay toget those messages there.

And then there's probably the biggest issue -- active content.

I doubt anyone ever sent an executable file, Trojan horse, key logger, oreven a jpeg image to another person via telegram. I even doubt any formof ''ASCII Art'' was practiced over telegrams, but would concede thatpoint if pushed. I suppose one could have sent a telegram to anotherperson with deliberately misleading information (e.g., ''BE SURE TO BUY AMILLION SHARES OF {INSERT NAME OF NOW DEFUNCT COMPANY} WITHOUT DELAYSTOP''), but that could hardly pass for one of the automatically executedvermin that roam the Internet today.

It is here the telegraph system enjoyed what is no doubt its principalsecurity advantage over our modern day email. Active content in our emailtoday probably accounts for a massive percentage of the virus, worm, andTrojan horse infections in the world. But who among us would be contentwith email systems that prevented us from being able to send and receiveactive content to our friends, customers, and colleagues? No, I'm afraidthe whipped cream is quite thoroughly out of that can.

Realistically, I think the best we can hope for in this regard is tofind a safer way of running, playing, or viewing the email content peoplesend us.

Save for the nostalgic among us, I seriously doubt many people will missthe telegraph. Despite all of its faults, Internet email is still thecheapest and quickest form of written electronic communications availableto most people today. The ability to type one's own message, press thesend button, and have it appear on the desktop of its recipient --perhaps halfway around the world -- in a second or so has given us anunprecedented level of communications I, for one, find exhilarating.

But what hath we wrought?

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