Can You Keep A Secret?

Categories: Typing Practice, Typing Science |

Most of us have gotten so used to the video surveillance cameras in shops and on street corners in most cities that we don’t even notice them any more. Recent news about “government spy programs” is a reminder that not much of our lives are actually private these days. If you buy anything on line, or get a credit card, or even open a bank account, your personal information is being stored in a database somewhere – and every computer system ever set up is vulnerable to hacking. Still, you don’t usually worry about people deliberately listening in on the conversations you have with friends at a table in a restaurant, or that anyone has tapped your cell phone to get all the exciting details of the last chat you had with your grandmother. We can go about our daily lives without feeling like someone’s looking over our shoulder.

In the office, it’s a little different. You generally do have someone looking over your shoulder, whether it’s your supervisor or manager, or a nosy neighbor at the next desk. Most people think that moving into a cubicle will give a bit of that privacy back, and we’re used to lowering our voices on the telephone if we really want to keep people from hearing our conversations. However, with the aid of modern technology, apparently even our e-mail chats can be overheard, at least according to researcher J. Doug Tygar at the University of California, Berkeley. When he and fellow researchers used a microphone to record the sound of keystrokes and then processed that recording using computer algorithms, they found that the computer was able to “hear” the words that were being typed. Each key has a slightly different sound when struck, the researchers explained, and with the right sort of decoding algorithm, everything from online chats to system passwords could be retrieved.

It’s not likely that you’ve got a microphone planted under your work surface, and the computer technology needed to actually decipher the sounds of the keys isn’t widely available, so don’t worry about whether people are listening to what you type. Give them something else to think about with how you type instead. If you’re an excellent touch typist you’ll be typing so quickly that the sound of the keys will be a blur, and all people will think about is your amazing skill at typing!

Reference: J. D. Tygar, L. Zhuang, F. Zhou. Case Study: Acoustic Keyboard Emanations. In Phishing and Countermeasures: Understanding the Increasing Problem of Electronic Identity Theft (2007)

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