Fax machines still being used


Staff Reports

The Conversation

Why do people still use fax machines?

February 6, 2019

Author: Jonathan Coopersmith is a Friend of The Conversation and Professor of History, Texas A&M University.

Disclosure statement: Jonathan Coopersmith received funding from the National Science Foundation to research the fax machine and to organize the conference, “To Boldly Preserve: Archiving the Next Half-Century of Spaceflight.”

Partners: Texas A&M University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US. Johns Hopkins University Press provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

The fax machine is a symbol of obsolete technology long superseded by computer networks – but faxing is actually growing in popularity.

Four years ago, I wrote a history of 160 years of faxing, saying my book covered “the rise and fall of the fax machine.” The end I predicted has not yet come: Millions of people, businesses and community groups send millions of faxed pages every day, from standalone fax machines, multi-function printers and computer-based fax services. It turns out that in many cases, faxing is more secure, easier to use and better suited to existing work habits than computer-based messaging.

Businesses often use faxes

Faxing remains alive and well, especially in Japan and Germany – and in major sectors of the U.S. economy, such as health care and financial services. Countless emails flash back and forth, but millions of faxes travel the world daily too.

A worldwide survey in 2017 found that of 200 large firms, defined as companies with more than 500 employees, 82 percent had seen workers send the same number of, or even more, faxes that year than in 2016. A March 2017 unscientific survey of 1,513 members of an online forum for information technology professionals found that 89 percent of them still sent faxes.

The persistence of faxing – and the people who send faxes – is in part because the fax industry has adapted to accommodate new technologies. Fax machines still dominate, but both surveys suggested users were shifting to computer-based services, such as fax servers that let users send and receive faxes as electronic documents. Cloud-based fax services, which treat faxes as images or PDF files attached to emails, are also becoming more popular. These new systems can transmit faxes over telephone lines or the internet, depending on the recipient, handling paper and electronic documents equally easily.

Legal acceptance

Fax’s longevity also benefits greatly from reluctance – both legal and social – to accept email as secure and an emailed electronic signature as valid. Faxed signatures became legally accepted in the late 1980s and early 1990s in a series of legal and administrative decisions by state and federal agencies. The Electronic Signatures Act in 2000 also gave digital signatures legal power but institutional and individual acceptance followed only slowly – if at all.

Even parts of the federal government preferred faxes over email for many years thereafter. Not until 2010 did the Drug Enforcement Agency allow electronic signatures for Schedule II drugs like Ritalin and opiates, which comprised about 10 percent of all prescriptions. That meant a pharmacist could accept a faxed prescription but not one scanned and sent by email.

The most recent FBI Criminal Justice Information Services policy allows faxing from physical fax machines without encrypting the message, but demands encryption for all email and internet communications, including cloud-based faxing. It’s much harder to intercept faxes than unencrypted email messages.

Faxing and medicine

Another reason faxing hangs on is because competing technologies are weak. The health care industry generates huge amounts of data for each patient. That should make it fertile ground for a fully digital record-keeping system, “where data can flow easily between patient, provider, caregivers, researchers, innovators and payers,” as Seema Verna, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, put it in a speech earlier this year.

Federal privacy laws and deliberately incompatible standards, however, stand in the way. Immediately after the passage of the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, fax vendors retooled their transmission, reception and storage systems and procedures to protect patients’ personal records. Specifically, HIPAA-compliant fax systems ensure the correct number is dialed and limit who can see received faxes. Digital patient-information systems have struggled to meet the same standards of administrative, technical and physical security.

The Obama administration spent more than US$25 billion encouraging doctors and hospitals to adopt electronic medical records systems. Crucially, rather than forcing competing systems to be compatible in order to receive federal support, the administration believed the market would decide on a standard to communicate.

What actually happened was that competing companies deliberately created incompatible systems. Doctors’ offices and hospitals that use different records databases can’t communicate with each other digitally – but they can via fax. For many medical professionals, particularly independent physicians, faxing is far easier than dealing with expensive, hard-to-use software that doesn’t actually do what it was supposed to: securely share patient information.

Comfortable inertia

One more personal factor preserving faxing is users’ reluctance to change. Small businesses who find that faxing meets all their needs have little reason to spend the money and effort to try a new technology for document exchange. Every company that prefers faxes inherently encourages all its customers and suppliers to keep faxing too, to avoid messing up existing ordering processes.

It’s important to remember, too, that fax machines and multifunctional printers with a fax capability provide an inexpensive backup capability in case of technical problems with an internet connection, or even a cyberattack, like the Russian attack on Estonia in 2007.

Absent a compelling reason or some management or government mandate, people often don’t change technologies. This is true beyond faxing: I drive a 2005 Camry. There are plenty of cars that are better in some way – safer, more fuel-efficient, more comfortable – but so long as the Camry passes state inspections and performs adequately, I can avoid the challenges and costs of buying a new car and learning how to use its new features.

International popularity

Faxing is still popular overseas, too. In Britain, the 2000 Electronic Communications Act encouraged but did not explicitly authorize electronic signatures. In 2018, urged partly by the European Union’s promotion of electronic identification, the British Law Commission concluded that electronic signatures were indeed legal but needed significant promotion to increase their acceptance and use.

Not surprisingly, a recent survey found that Britain’s National Health Service operated more than 8,000 fax machines. In response, the U.K.‘s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock labeled faxing a symbol of National Health Service technological backwardness and pledged to introduce new technologies more quickly. In December, the National Health Service decided to stop buying fax machines in 2019 and end their use by the end of 2020. That’s the same goal the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Verna has for American doctors to stop faxing.

Nevertheless, faxing continues because it remains better – cheaper, more convenient, more secure, more comfortable – than the alternatives for many people, businesses and organizations. Faxing will remain important until transmitting digital data becomes easier and more accepted. That could be a long way off, though. U.S. federal initiatives are trying to make medical records systems more compatible, but no one has yet been hired to take a key leadership position at CMS.

Eventually the older generation of people more comfortable with faxing than emailing will fade away. Until then, however, fax machines will whirl away.

Jonathan Coopersmith is the author of: Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine


Gavin Moodie, Adjunct professor, RMIT University: Thanx for this, which I found most informative. I wonder whether faxes will turn out to be the radio of information transmission: a technology which has in theory been superseded, whose end is repeatedly foretold, but which retains an active life.

The Conversation

Autocracies that look like democracies are a threat across the globe

February 6, 2019

Author: Richard Carney, Professor, China Europe International Business School

Disclosure statement: Richard Carney does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Russia’s successful interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election may inspire other countries to do the same.

These other countries don’t look threatening. They look like democracies. But they’re not.

They’re a special kind of autocratic regime that masquerades as a democracy. And what looks like benevolent conduct by these countries can quickly change into aggressive, politically charged behavior.

Autocracies, often known as “authoritarian regimes,” maintain power through centralized control over information and resources. Political opposition is either forbidden or strongly curtailed and individual freedom is limited by the state.

Autocracies that look like democracies are different because their leaders permit political opponents to run for election – even though they rarely win.

These countries’ capitalist systems have some of the trappings of liberal democracies in the West. But these regimes use capitalism to further their authoritarian rule.

These so-called “dominant party authoritarian regimes” have surged in number from around 13 percent of all countries before the end of the Cold War to around 33 percent today.

Most are located in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. They are also present in Eastern Europe and in the Americas. Russia is one of them; so are Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore and Venezuela.

These regimes often engage in the same kinds of bad behavior as other autocracies. But their behavior is critically different in both the motivations and methods used to further authoritarian ends, as detailed in my new book “Authoritarian Capitalism.”

Political control

Part of the danger with dominant party authoritarian regimes is that their veneer of democracy permits political opponents to run for election. But when incumbent rulers face a threat to their power, the autocrats often respond by targeting political dissidents and taking aggressive actions toward foreign enemies to bolster popular support.

For example, Russian leader Vladimir Putin faced an unprecedented challenge from citizen protests during the 2012 presidential election. The protests continued into 2013.

Putin punished the protesters. New York Times correspondent Ellen Barry reported in 2013 that “new laws prescribe draconian punishments for acts of dissent. … Mr. Putin … embraced a new, sharply conservative rhetoric, dismissing the urban protesters as traitors and blasphemers, enemies of Russia.”

Shortly afterward, Russia’s foreign activities became even more belligerent than during the Soviet period. This accomplished just what Putin wanted: Following his annexation of Crimea in 2014, his approval ratings skyrocketed.

Another recent example is Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repression of domestic political dissidents following the failed July 2016 coup against him. According to The Guardian, the regime arrested or suspended “more than 110,000 officials, including judges, teachers, police and civil servants.”

Erdogan went after foreign-based dissidents too, allegedly orchestrating a plot to kidnap opposition leader Fetullah Gulen from Pennsylvania.

And while he won the presidential election in June 2018, Erdogan’s foreign-based critics remain concerned about his threats. Enes Kanter, a Turkish NBA star, declined to travel to London in January 2019 out of fear that Turkish spies might kill him.

Information control

Another distinction that characterizes dominant party authoritarian regimes is how they exploit Western legal and financial systems against Western media outlets critical of the regime.

Normally, autocrats control information and resources to retain power. But rather than relying on the typical autocrat’s crude hostile attacks or outright censorship, dominant party authoritarian regimes use legal or financial methods regarded as legitimate by the West.

In other words, they sue the media or they buy them.

A slew of foreign news organizations – including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and The Economist – were sued by the Lee family, autocratic rulers of Singapore, for political and financial reporting after the 2008 global financial crisis.

The family maintained the coverage defamed them. As the Wall Street Journal’s editors wrote in 2008, “We know of no foreign publication that has ever won in a Singapore court of law. Virtually every Western publication that circulates in the city-state has faced a lawsuit, or the threat of one.”

Malaysian political authorities deployed similar tactics when their rulers felt threatened.

Following the Asian financial crisis of 1997, and in the months leading up to the November 1999 general election, wealthy ruling party supporters in Malaysia filed a flurry of defamation lawsuits against foreign journalists and media organizations, such as the Asian Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones.

Russia’s means of pressuring foreign media are slightly different, but they also involve taking advantage of Western legal-financial systems.

Russia has engaged in disinformation campaigns that exploit weaknesses in the West’s freedom of speech protections, as documented by experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and at the Center for the Study of Democracy.

And Russian companies have acquired sufficiently large ownership stakes in foreign media companies to influence their operations.

This has involved both the manipulation of their coverage and a reduction in media freedoms of the country in which they are located.

For example, Delyan Peevski is a controversial member of the Bulgarian Parliament who advocated for pro-Russian policies. Peevski built and sustained a media empire that controls around 40 percent of Bulgaria’s print sector and 80 percent of the newspaper distribution with loans from a partially Russian-owned bank.

Resource control

In contrast to firms located in other types of autocracies, state-controlled businesses in dominant party authoritarian regimes often comply with international financial regulations. This helps them gain access to Western countries’ corporate and financial systems.

Under cover of legitimate business operations, their autocratic leaders can pursue political objectives with less scrutiny.

Malaysia’s state-owned investment fund, 1MDB, engaged in aggressive investment tactics with corrupt practices – including “abnormally high payback” for investment bankers – that extended across the globe.

The U.S. accuses former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s family friend of masterminding the theft of US$2 billion from the fund. And its capital was also channeled to politicians and projects to help the ruling party win the 2013 elections.

Russia has also used state-linked companies to gain influence over Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria’s crucial energy sectors via purchases of ownership stakes in listed companies.

This granted the Russian state access to other key sectors of these economies, such as finance and telecommunications. Russia then was able to influence government policies.

In one case, the Serbian government chose not to enforce the European Union’s sanctions against Russia. That was a risk for Serbia, because it has wanted to qualify for European Union membership by 2025.

Even bolder actions occurred with Russia’s interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election.

Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, told the Senate in September 2018 that never before had the Kremlin violated American sovereignty so “illegally, aggressively and audaciously” – even during the high-stakes rivalry of the Cold War.

It is now common knowledge that Russian-controlled agencies and businesses played a strategically vital role in the election interference.

Resisting influence

Can democracies defend themselves against such aggressive regimes?

The “Kremlin Playbook,” written by Heather A. Conley, James Mina, Ruslan Stefanov and Martin Vladimirov, is an extensive study of Russian influence in Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Latvia and Serbia. It provides a detailed list of policy recommendations to resist Russian influence that can be applied to other dominant party authoritarian regimes.

They include strengthening intelligence gathering and cooperation between the U.S. and its allies; increasing U.S. and allied governments’ assistance to vulnerable countries; and stronger protections for and enforcement of transparency measures.

But I believe an important addition to this list is the need to monitor the strength of the ruling party’s hold on power. That’s because aggressive, politically charged activities are most likely to occur when incumbent rulers face an elevated threat.

With its attack on the U.S. 2016 election, Russia showed that it’s possible to interfere destructively in the most powerful Western democracy. I expect that other autocracies that look like democracies will follow suit – across the globe.

EarthTalk Q&A

Trying To Keep Our Cities Sustainable City Planners Can Only Do So Much: The Rest Is Up To Us

Kate Harveston

February 4, 2019

Many people use the word “sustainability” as a blanket term to describe any effort to improve the environment without fully understanding what sustainability entails. Sustainability refers to the utilization of natural resources in such a fashion that everyone has what they need to care for their basic well-being without depriving future generations of the benefits the resource provides.

In short, sustainability means replacing resources we’ve depleted. On an individual level, improving sustainable practices means taking measures such as composting old food rinds and tea bags, investing in reusable grocery bags and cleaning rags and planting a new tree to replace one we chop down for lumber.

But when improving sustainability on a city-wide level, city planners must balance the needs of thousands, even millions, of current citizens with strategies that provide for growth. Those involved with or interested in improving their cities’ sustainability should keep the following things in mind.

Walking, Biking and Riding

Probably the most important issue facing city planners involves getting people from Point A to Point B without creating traffic gridlock. All solid city planning should involve expanding public transportation options to limit the number of vehicles sharing the roadway. Increased access to public transportation helps cities reduce pollution from car exhaust. Ensuring adequate bus, subway and light rail routes helps keep traffic flowing smoothly while limiting environmental impact.

Walking or riding a bike to travel releases no damaging chemicals into the air. Therefore city planners must create safe routes to pursue these activities. The better the walk score a city receives, the more sustainable the city is.

Housing and Waste Control

Many rapidly growing cities in the United States leave lower income individuals out in the cold when it comes to affordable housing. This impacts the cities’ environment in several ways.

Lack of affordable housing means an increase in the homeless population. This often results in increased littering in public areas such as parks when rangers can’t keep up with garbage collection quickly enough. The U.S. is also in the throes of an addiction epidemic like no other, leading to drug-related litter piling up in the streets. Since drug use often disproportionately affects the homeless population, these are all important factors that should be taken into account as we look to build more sustainable city frameworks.

Since homeless people also lack access to affordable medical care, contagious diseases often flourish throughout entire homeless camps creating a public health risk. To minimize homelessness and to simply treat our cities’ citizens better, city planners should encourage builders to balance the ratio of luxury high rises with that of low-income, subsidized housing. In addition, building codes should reflect preferences for greener building materials and ban the use of certain hazardous materials like asbestos. Excellent trash collection services should also be prioritized in budgeting.

In addition, many cities exist along natural waterways like oceans, lakes and rivers. City planners should set strict rules regarding what flows into these public waterways. Both industrial and agricultural wastes can render waterways unsafe for fishing or swimming. Likewise, cities should limit the use of recreational watercraft such as boats and jet skis to minimize fuel waste.

Proximity to Needed Services

Finally, easy access to necessary resources cuts pollution by allowing residents to fill their needs in nearby businesses instead of driving to the next city over. While this impacts small, developing cities the most, all city planners do well to encourage a variety of hair salons, child care resources and shopping destinations in close proximity to residential areas.

Creating a more sustainable city takes time and hard work. However, the payoff in terms of keeping the city a pleasant place for future residents makes the time and effort needed to switch to sustainable practices well worth it.

Building Sustainable Cities

Sustainable development is a popular environmental catchphrase, but it’s not always clear what sustainability looks like beyond demonstration projects such as recycling centers or the occasional “green” building. Now North Americans are starting to look at Sweden for both models and methods of sustainability.

EarthTalk is a California-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization.


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