Wednesday

Wednesday 6/11/2002Apologies if you didn't expect to see these words because they've appeared in the middle of a letter to your bank manager -- I'm using a cordless keyboard, and according to reports from Norway this can broadcast messages somewhat wider than you might expect. Two Norwegians in the town of Stavanger discovered that their HP wireless keyboards were quite capable of communicating with each other's computers, despite them being around 150 metres apart -- 15 times the rated range.

Wednesday 6/11/2002
Apologies if you didn't expect to see these words because they've appeared in the middle of a letter to your bank manager -- I'm using a cordless keyboard, and according to reports from Norway this can broadcast messages somewhat wider than you might expect. Two Norwegians in the town of Stavanger discovered that their HP wireless keyboards were quite capable of communicating with each other's computers, despite them being around 150 metres apart -- 15 times the rated range. HP's taking this revelation very seriously, as well it might: after all, there's no point in having ten-zillion-bit encryption on your computer if the password you type is transmitted to the neighbourhood in clear. It all sounds a bit odd to me: keyboards and their receivers have to be registered with each other before they work, and even light security should prevent unregistered transmissions from being decoded by accident. That's a software issue which can and should be fixed. But a bit more digging shows that the HP keyboards -- like the one I'm using here, from Gyration -- use the 49MHz frequency band. You probably don't know 49MHz. It's used for low-power devices like toy walkie-talkies, baby monitors and radio-controlled models. Tune around the band on a suitable receiver, and you'll hear bleeps, buzzes and the occasional deeply unsettling sound of regular, deep breathing as some tot snoozes by remote control. There are apocryphal tales of parental arguments and babysitter snogfests being broadcast in this way, and for the most part that's the only exciting thing that ever troubles 49MHz. But the band lives on the borders between VHF and shortwave. Most of the time, it behaves like VHF -- signals fade after a short distance and don't get interference from far away. Sometimes, though, when atmospheric conditions are right, even tiny signals can carry thousands of miles. I've heard South African policemen come through a toy walkie-talkie on Dartmoor, and heard kids playing in a Miami back yard on my radio in North London. The next-door band, 50MHz, is known by radio amateurs as the magic band, because when it gets lively you can get the most fantastic long-distance contacts on tiny amounts of power. This is fab if you're a ham, not so fab if you're pouring your heart out to your girlfriend -- or more excitingly, someone else's -- or inputting the password to your work VPN. The sooner everyone moves to Bluetooth or Zigbee, which are immune to these problems, the better -- but there are hundreds of thousands of old keyboards out there that won't go away tomorrow. I can see a brand-new long-distance listening hobby starting: fishing for keystrokes across the ether....

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