The Fax Is Not Yet Obsolete

Law and medicine still rely on the device. Maybe they shouldn’t. An Object Lesson.

A row of fax machines
Dado Ruvic / Reuters

Nicole Follmann arrived at the Brooklyn House of Detention last spring to post bail by fax. This is how it works: You can post someone’s bail from any jail or courthouse, but you have to send a fax to wherever the person is housed. Follmann is an attorney for the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, so she’s used to the inflow and outflow of documents. That day, she was posting bail for someone housed in Rikers.

The process began as usual, according to Follmann. The person being detained had a bail that needed to be paid in two installments: $2,000 and $1. Correctional officers at Rikers received the $2,000 payment, but she didn’t get confirmation that they had received $1. It was getting late, so Follmann called to ask if there was a problem.

“They said, ‘Our fax machine is down and we’re trying to get it fixed,’” Follmann explains. “I said, ‘Is there any way to get around this?’ They said, ‘No, we’re trying to get it fixed.’”

The detainee ended up staying in jail overnight, even though the bail had been paid. In the morning, the machine still wasn’t working. It was several more hours until the paperwork went through. “Even though it was just a technical glitch to them, that meant that people who had been paid for weren’t getting released,” Follmann says.

When the New York Daily News covered this incident in April, readers were incredulous: The Department of Corrections could have its operations stymied by a broken fax machine? Who even uses fax machines anymore, let alone depends on them?

A lot of people. Fax, once at the forefront of communications technologies but now in deep decline, has persisted in many industries. Law-enforcement agencies remain heavily reliant on fax for routine operations, such as bail postings and return of public-records requests. Health care, too, runs largely on fax. Despite attempts to replace it, a mix of regulatory confusion, digital-security concerns, and stubbornness has kept fax machines droning around the world.

An early facsimile message was sent over telegraph lines in London in 1847, based on a design by the Scottish inventor Alexander Bain. There is some dispute over whether it was the first fax: Competing inventors, including Bain in the United Kingdom and Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell across the Atlantic, sought to father facsimile technology, which was a kind of white whale for inventors. Telegraphs already allowed messages to be passed across distances, one letter at a time using Morse code. But the dream of transmitting copies of messages and images instantly over wires was very much alive. Writing in 1863, Jules Verne imagined that the Paris of the 1960s would be replete with fax machines, or as he called them, “picture-telegraphs.”

The technology did eventually lead to a revolution in communication, though it didn’t happen until years later. It first became known to many Americans after the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where a fax machine transmitted newspaper images from around the world at a rate of 18 minutes per page—lightning speed for the time.

“In an age of instantaneous information and images, it is hard to appreciate the magic that millions in the 1930s experienced upon seeing photographs of distant disasters appear the next day in their newspapers, or the excitement in the 1980s of watching an exact copy of a letter emerge line by line from a machine connected to the telephone network,” Jonathan Coopersmith writes in his book Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine.

Faxing really took off in the ’80s, in offices around the world. It caused major changes in the speed of business transactions, allowing individuals and companies to disseminate materials quickly and broadly—someone in an office building in Japan could fire off a document to the United States instantly. It also served as a precursor to today’s digital-image culture: Fax allowed for the speedy dissemination of pictures of all kinds. This gave rise to so-called creative faxers who, Coopersmith writes, faxed “pizza orders, song requests, party invitations, greeting cards, ski reports, amniocentesis results, baby footprints, children’s drawings, and vows of eternal love.” People faxed Santa Claus. They faxed God, via the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

But its reign was short-lived. Faxing’s heyday came just before the invention of the internet. In his 1995 book, Being Digital, the MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte declared, “The fax machine is a serious blemish on the information landscape, a step backward, whose ramifications will be felt for a long time.” Several years later, both production and sales of fax machines began to dramatically decline.

Shortly after its star really rose, fax was rendered essentially obsolete.

Except that it wasn’t. In sectors like health care and law enforcement, the fax machine lives on. This is due to a mishmash of regulatory concerns, fears about digital security, and plain old resistance to change.

Doctors rely heavily on faxes in both routine and high-stakes situations. According to Vox, one industry analyst estimates that 75 percent all of all medical communications still happen by fax. Occasionally, news outlets describe this phenomenon, mostly as human-interest stories: “Medical Students Flummoxed by Fax Machines” or “Med Students Are Puzzled When Forced to Use This Ancient Technology.” Despite confusion and frustration, though, the business of faxing continues on. Part of this has to do with an interpretation of a clause in HIPAA, a U.S. health-privacy law, which requires health providers to take reasonable steps to safeguard patient information. Because this rule explicitly mentions fax and not email, some providers interpret the law to mean that records must go by fax.

That habit dies hard. A start-up called PatientBank, which allowed users to share and receive medical records digitally, shut down in January, partly because weaning hospitals from fax proved too difficult. Paul Fletcher-Hill, a PatientBank co-founder, told me that one reason hospitals cited for their continued dependency was security: Many believed that hacking computer systems were easier to hack than fax machines—and that computer hacks were more damaging.

“There’s a perception that digital systems are easily hackable, and it’s true that many hospitals have struggled with ransomware attacks recently,” he said. There’s some truth to the claim that fax is more secure, in the sense that even if a signal is intercepted—which is very possible—compromising a single transmission would be less severe than hacking an entire system of digital records. So while fax may be more vulnerable in individual instances, in the aggregate, it may be more secure.

Fax also allows for interoperability: People with different information-technology systems and software applications can communicate easily, via one uniform technology. “There are definitely good reasons why it’s such a thorny thing to disrupt,” Fletcher-Hill admits.

In law enforcement, data-entry protocols remain largely analog. As Benjamin Mueller wrote of policing practice in The New York Times, “Technical know-how has advanced more slowly on the front lines of investigative work than it has at Police Headquarters and in counterterrorism units.” This is true across the country; while American law enforcement has access to some of the most advanced technology in the world, a lot of the heavy lifting of policing is done with fairly low-tech tools.

It’s been a running joke among journalists for years—as well as a real hindrance—that the FBI only takes Freedom of Information Act requests by mail and fax. In rare cases, this reliance on fax can prove life-threatening. In Massachusetts, until recently, communication between agencies and the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families about suspected child abuse was happening almost exclusively via fax. Two police officers were shot and killed in New York City in 2014—and it was later found that the Baltimore County Police had faxed a wanted poster for the suspects to New York.

Still, outside of these instances, basic tech upgrades for law enforcement are not the stuff of great public interest. It’s also a sector that’s loath to embrace many kinds of change, and has little incentive to get on email—and sometimes active disincentive, because email creates a record subject to possible future legal discovery.

Today, faxing provides a certain joy associated with the retro functionality of the technology. The magic that Coopersmith describes in Faxed, of seeing a document transmitted instantaneously from another part of the world, has been transmuted into a different kind of magic: that of a tangible receipt—an actual, physical document—in an increasingly screen-bound world.

But at an institutional level, it’s time for some fax machines to wheeze their last squeals. Jails need to respond immediately to bail payment. Doctors need to be able to receive medical records quickly and simply. The FBI needs to respond to reporters’ requests via email. Fax may have a role in their offices, but it shouldn’t be the be-all-end-all of communication, even if there are reasons it has persisted. In these cases, the fax shouldn’t die because it’s old-fashioned or retrograde, but because people’s safety and comfort, and even their lives, still rely on a sheet of paper inching out of a machine, awaiting notice.