What technology from the 1800s do you still use today?
You likely get a new computer every couple of years. Your cell phone is likely not older than two or three years. Even one of the oldest “electronic” technologies you probably still have, the lightbulb, has gone through several iterations with CFLs and LEDs.
So why are we still using technology invented in 1844 to send documents across analog phone lines?
The first fax machine was invented by Alexander Bain in 1843, when he was issued British Patent 9745 for his “electric-printing telegraph” in that same year.
The next big step in development came in 1924 when inventor Richard Ranger invented wireless photo-faxing—or “Radio Facsimile”—which would allow a facsimile to be sent over broad distances utilizing radio waves.
Xerox unveiled the Magnafax Telecopier—revolutionary for its “lightweight” (46-pound footprint!) design. The Magnafax would in time become seen as the progenitor of the contemporary office fax machine. It was capable of transmitting a letter-size document in under six minutes – a first at the time.
By the 1970s, many companies around the world (particularly in the United States, Japan, and Germany) would be adopting the office fax machine. Indeed, the ’70s and majority of the ’80s would be the “golden age” for our friend the fax machine.
For the most part, faxing has not changed since its wide adoption in the mid ’60s. Some machines can send pages with higher resolution. Some machines can send pages faster than their 1960s counterparts, averaging one page per minute. Some machines even have greater support for error correction for noisy lines, and for long distance/overseas calls.
The perception of faxes as an especially secure form of communication, comes from its “one-to-one” communication method. Like a phone call, a fax is being communicated, quite literally, “over the phone” – over the “public-switched telephones network” (PSTN). (An acronym denoting the world’s collection of interconnected telephone networks.) It cannot be “hacked” in the traditional sense.
However, fax communication is NOT encrypted. Much like traditional phone calls, analog faxes can be tapped, recorded, and played back with ease.
These pedestals on the side of the road near most homes and businesses are frequently open, missing their enclosures or easily opened by lifting.
Because traditional phone lines are a physical pair of wires, they can easily be tapped onto with readily-available equipment. The subscriber and fax machine would be completely unaware.
This means that someone, with little effort, can find a line in a bundle on the street, tap it, record phone calls and faxes, and play them back at leisure.
This is much harder to do with an email, almost impossible, as most email communication is encrypted. This includes the connection from your email client to your company’s email server (typically HTTPS), and the communication between your company’s email server and another organization (typically SSL).
Even when we start talking about fax over IP, like on a VoIP service, tapping an unencrypted fax (and faxes are still not encrypted) is also nearly impossible, as it would require you tapping a home or businesses internet connection. Cable, Fibre, DSL, whatever the medium, this is nearly impossible to accomplish.
It is estimated that in the ’60s and ’70s, before most of the PSTN became digital in the Central Office, the failure rate for faxes was around 20%. This means that 1 out of every 5 faxes would fail to send, likely due to line noise or other factors.
As the public phone network matured, lines became less noisy. Faxing standards matured. The estimated failure rate was around 5%.
Today, with FoIP/VoIP or E-Faxing, the failure rate is estimated to be between 5% and 8%.
Email technology has proven to be reliable to a nearly 0% failure rate (for non-spam email), as the technology supports retransmissions, and IP networks support error correction.
Faxes, by and large, are actually less secure than sending a document via email.
Sending a document by fax is 500X more likely to see it get dropped, or received with errors, missing pages, or with pages out of sequence.
Faxes are not secure, and are unreliable.