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Tuesday, 6 November, 2001, 08:08 GMT
Bugging your keyboard
BBC Go Digital's Jon Wurtzel casts a wry eye over developments in the world of technology

You don't need to be a brilliant spy to access the secret information people type into their computers.

The ability to be a hacker is now being mass-marketed in a product called Keykatcher.

It is a small, cream-coloured tubular device that tracks and stores all the keystrokes a person enters into KeyKatcher's memory chip.

This means it can be used to find out everything a person types into their computer, including personal letters, business correspondence, passwords and credit card numbers.

Click here to tell us what you would use the Keykatcher for

It is relatively cheap, costing between US $50 and $150, and can be purchased throughout Europe and the US, as well as online.

Easy to install

If you want to install it, simply plug the device in between the keyboard cable and the computer.

Keykatcher plugged into a computer
Device is plugged in between the keyboard cable and the computer
It will then record all the information someone taps into the computer through the keyboard.

To recover this data, you type in a previously established password, and dump all the information from Keykatcher into any text editing software.

Then, every character the person you spied on typed into their computer is revealed to you on screen.

The memory limits of Keykatcher does mean the device can only display between four and 16 pages of text, depending on which model of the device has been purchased.

Potential uses

Some of the obvious potential uses for Keykatcher come from the pages of crime novels, such as eavesdropping on enemies and loved ones, stealing financial information, following the actions of strangers, and stalking people.

Of course, none of this will happen if everyone follows the manufacturer's legal disclaimer that "you may not use the device to violate the privacy rights of any other party".

Keykatcher's makers suggest companies use its product to track everything their employees do with their computers, and that parents use it to monitor their children's internet usage.

Software is also commercially available that will track someone's computer use. Does this really mean workers will think twice before sending personal e-mails at work?

And is there any chance that kids will think of their parents when they surf the net?

Have your say

Click here to return

Who would you try to catch out using Keykatcher?

I think this would be a very good idea, especially for the parents whose children use those chat rooms and dotcom sites they shouldn't be able to get access to.
Paul Armstrong, UK

I've not personaly seen this device but from the description it would appear not to be infallible. If the device contains a memory and Rom that contains a password challenge / response then a counter program could be easily written to detect the presence of the device and act accordingly. Radio scanners are outlawed. I see no reason why this device should differ. Computer software that performs the same keystroke function and further relays that information 'live' to an internet recipient have been freely available for years from the 'darker' corners on the internet.
Michael Clark, UK

When reading about this device I don't really care if the person using it finds out what websites I go to be what if they found out my username and password for online banking? I would lose my money and the bank would not replay it as it would be a security breach at my end. Doesn't want to be thought about in open computer labs.
Graham Robinson, England, UK

I can see a use for these devices in a higher security environment, but for home use, they are just a device to be nosey with. A quick visual security check will render any external 'bugs' on the keyboard ineffective, so there isn't really an issue (with this device). There are lots of ways that devices leak information, and if someone wants to acquire information, they will. You could live your life in a shielded cave, with no connections to the outside world.
Mark Kelsall, England

As a computer scientist I really don't see why this makes any difference to the way things are now. The device requires physical access to the computer on which it will be installed, if that computer is running Windows then there are known security flaws that can be exploited anyway so it just adds another way in. It would be very easy (If you found one)to plug the thing in to a mouse port instead and fill it with nonsense as well.
John Booinsed, UK

And? This is just simply a visible bugging device. Without people taking much more care over their use of computers and in particular where the use them, there are far more subtle but just as effective ways of tracking your usage and what you did. The large media interests are pushing very heavily in the US for mandatory 'copy protection' devices in all computer systems - this is another excellent road in for unethical organisations to install backdoor bugging devices without you being aware or them.
Peter Galbavy, London, UK

If I ever found one on my computer, it would be promptly removed and destroyed! Yuck!
Anna Langley, UK

This device is almost completely useless. There are much more effective ways of getting information from a computer without the users knowledge using software, this only stores a limited number of pages too.
Richard Hamme, UK

I would bug a colleague from work to establish the truth behind his secret love affair. Find out if it is a male or female he is communicating with.
Eve Drop, UK

Its no big deal really. Software programs called "key loggers" have been available for virtually all operating systems for a long time, and there are even free versions. If I were to want to monitor some-one's computer activity I would use a software program since they are invisible to the user and no hardware is required.
Nas, Pakistan

I work in the design of embedded devices and instruments. It is my view that the whole industry is decades away from practical on line security. We all know that the operating system is an unreliable toy. If any one discovers a breach they are shut up with threats and even imprisonment.
Campbell, UK

Is this really such a breakthrough? Key-catching software has been available for years, and can be set up by users on any PC, and even by viruses (they are often used for copying peoples logons & passwords). The gadget itself is very obvious and could easily be removed - unlike a software alternative.
Jason, UK

I have a Keykatcher - an early 8k model. I obtained it to understand the threat and to advise users in the company to check their machines. They are very effective and resemble a DIN to PS/2 converter. It has now become a habit to check the backs of my machines.
Alex, UK

I think that the Keykatcher would be a good idea from a business point of view but I cannot see how it could be used at home other than purely to 'spy' on the action of user's computers. isn't this then a breach of the manufacturers legal disclaimer?
John Davis, United Kingdom

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You can hear Jon every week on Go Digital, which is webcast on the BBC World Service site and BBC News Online every Monday at 1500 GMT. It is broadcast on BBC World Service radio on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Local times vary.

See also:

24 Aug 01 | Science/Nature
04 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
31 Jul 01 | Science/Nature
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