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Wireless keyboards and mice broadcast their information in such a way that other computers might be able to listen in.

When my son uses his mouse on his laptop upstairs it moves the mouse on the computer downstairs? Can you help?

I'm not certain that I can, but I can certainly give you a few things to look into.

The real reason I'm addressing this question is that it raises a very interesting privacy issue that most people aren't aware of.

You would probably realize if this were the case - since you'll have had to install the software - but remote-control software like VNC or similar tools can cause exactly this behaviour, because ... well, because that's exactly what they're designed for. As I type right now, I have on my desktop computer a window that is the desktop of my Mac laptop being controlled remotely:

VNC Window in Windows XP connected to my Mac

"Wireless mice use short distance radio signals to send the mouse's instructions to the computer."

If I move the mouse within that window on the desktop the pointer on the laptop itself moves as well, since I'm controlling it remotely. Similarly, if I type into that window it goes to the remote computer. (Remote Desktop connection wouldn't apply here since the actual laptop screen would show the login screen rather than the actual desktop while it's in use. With VNC and other remote control solutions you'll simply see your computer as if it's acting on its own while being remotely controlled.)

But like I said, since that typically requires some setup, you'd probably know if it were the case.

The scenario that's a little less obvious are wireless mice.

Wireless mice use short distance radio signals to send the mouse's instructions to the computer. Similarly, wireless keyboards do the same.

The problem is that it's transmitting, so anyone in range in theory could "listen in" to signals being sent. To overcome that, various keyboard and mouse manufacturers have established a kind of handshake that is supposed to allow the mouse or keyboard to actually connect to only one computer. And finally, the data being transmitted may, or may not, be encrypted.

So, for the practical problem you're experiencing, use a different mouse on that laptop and see if that doesn't resolve the issue. Disconnecting any external mouse and using the internal mouse, or using a wired one would be best, at least for that initial test.

But let's address the security issue we just raised.

  • your wireless keyboard or mouse is transmitting, and anyone "in range" could listen in

  • your wireless keyboard or mouse may not be encrypting its data (or may be doing so poorly), so anyone "in range" can see what you're typing if they listen in

  • "in range" varies on many things but could be as little as 30 feet, or as much as 300.

I've actually heard of this type of wireless eavesdropping being used in corporate environments.

So, what to do?

Well, I don't want to foster undue paranoia - more often than not this is not happening.

My advice is simply to be aware. If you're in a sensitive environment, consider a wired mouse and/or keyboard, or use your laptops internal mouse and keyboard which are, by definition, wired. If you need a wireless device, look for strong encryption to be called out - but do some research since certain forms of wireless keyboard encryption have in fact also been hacked and could still be sniffed.

Article C3861 - September 5, 2009 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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9 Comments
Bill
September 8, 2009 8:28 AM

I had never considered this but I am also not paranoid nor have a need to be.

I have been glancing at wireless keyboards and mice for a girlfriend's laptop and have not noticed encryption being specified. I will look at that more closely in the future.

JH
September 8, 2009 8:53 AM

I can't really see the point of wireless, wired peripherals are cheaper, do not require batteries and, in some cases, are faster. You already have at least some wires, what's wrong with a few more?

Chuck
September 8, 2009 9:56 AM

Not to minimize the seriousness of open broadcasts of signals, you are missing out on a wonderful practicial joke.
We set up a wireless mouse to a boss's PC. as he was trying to do some work, the joker would do simple moves with the mouse: change windows, right click, etc.
It was driving the boss wild and he called in tech support who found nothing, since the culprit mouse was by then in a drwaer.

Mike
September 8, 2009 10:10 AM

I use a wireless mouse. It requires not only the mouse (transmitter) but also a receiver plugged into the computer's USB port. I also have a second computer 6 feet away with a wireless card & on the same home network, with sharing enabled. There is no interference.

There are all kinds of radio frequencies around your home, but it takes a proper receiver to decode them and make them useful for a specific function. I suspect this is the case here; someone has set it up as a practical joke.

VERNA
September 8, 2009 11:36 AM

IS IT POSSIBLE THAT THE COMPUTERS ARE ON A SHARED NETWORK?

Dave
September 8, 2009 1:18 PM

I had this in a hotel reception where I look after the computers and it simply turned out to be that one PC was using the same frequency as the wireless mouse receiver on the other PC. Both were the same brand and model. The receptionist was going crazy when I was using the mouse on one machine nearby and it was moving the mouse on both! I simply reset the mouse receiver and mouse using the reset buttons which created a new frequency. The problem didn't return.

amirah
September 8, 2009 11:56 PM

Great topic, I will make sure I stay away from wireless peripherals.

That's an extreme reaction. I love wireless peripherals. Just make sure to understand the risks depending on the environment you happen to be in. In most cases there's no issue.
Leo
12-Sep-2009

Bob
January 25, 2012 9:09 AM

I have seen variations on this problem over the years, and even experienced it myself at a time before wireless peripherals - sometimes the mouse cursor would simply travel in a straight line across the desktop (often at an angle towards the top left) until i 'waggled' the mouse to regain control.
Personally, I don't like wireless peripherals.
1: you have to maintain the batteries (or charge, depending on what it is).
2: I'm a gamer. My peripherals often look like frankenstein's monster compared to other people's (my R.A.T.7 mouse is a case in point). Gaming peripherals usually have much higher 'needs' than standard ones.

Quvadus Hennings
February 6, 2012 3:59 AM

Hello Leo,

I thank you for the information. Excellent is your focus on privacy. In regards to this situation, I agree with you that the upmost concern is privacy.

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