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Phantom Connections

© December 2006 Anthony Lawrence


I had coffee with Mark Jones of Micronet Network Services, Inc. this morning. The purpose was to discuss some Unix and Linux customers he has, but of course we started swapping stories and I liked this one so much I had to share it with you.

This happened to be a SCO Unix customer who Mark had recently converted from serial terminals to TCP/IP telnet sessions. They run Medical Manager, but that's not important to the story. As Mark told it to me, it went something like this:

"So there's this one Windows box forty feet down the hall from the server. The woman that's using it calls me up and tells me that sometimes she sees what someone else is typing in Medical Manager."

I (Tony) raised my eyebrows. "Only in MM?", I asked.

"No", Mark said, "Command line too. I went in and checked it out: she really could see what this other woman was typing."

He paused for a sip of coffee.

"So my first thought was that the machine was rooted or that maybe the Windows boxes had some screwy viruses. Checked it all out; couldn't find a thing. I was sure the SCO box had been compromised, but since I couldn't see any evidence, I decided that the best thing to do was reinstall from scratch."

At this point I was thinking that I'd like to have run "fuser" on the ptty's to see what on earth could be going on. I didn't think that a rooted machine was likely, and Mark confirmed it.

"But nope: that changed nothing. Complete fresh install and I could sit at that darn machine and see what the other woman up the hall was typing. Frustrating!"

I agreed. It must have been very frustrating.

Mark continued: "So now I'm back looking at the Windows box again. It had to be there. So I'm looking at everything, and the darn typing from the other machine was driving me nuts, so I reached in the back and unplugged the network."

Mark paused and smiled. "See where I'm going yet?", he asked.

"Nope." I admitted being clueless.

"Well, the typing kept coming. I figured it had to be some stupid buffer, but it didn't stop. I shut the machine down, even ripped out the nic card, but when I turned it back on, the darn typing kept coming!"

I shook my head in amazed befuddlement.

"It was right about then that I remembered something rather important."

Mark was grinning like the Cheshire cat now. "Remember when I mentioned this office was a good forty feet way from anything else?"

Yes, I remembered.

"Wireless keyboards. I totally forgot about them. Forty feet apart but one machine was picking up the others typing. Forty feet away. I've had that happen close by, but never forty feet away. I just never even considered it. But that's what it was. Exchanged the keyboard, problem disappeared. Case solved."

Great story, isn't it?

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Wed Dec 13 16:02:32 2006: 2723   Sledge

I had that problem with a customer. I got called over to help another person. As we were helping remotely, the other guy was freaked out and reinstalling drivers and reassuring the user that his machine was not compromised (at least we couldn't see anthing in netstat or the process list, etc). The first thing I asked is what changed and the second thing I asked is who else has a wireles keyboard. Got the classic answers, nothing changed, no one else has a wireless keyboard. The more we looked, the more convinced I was that another keyboard was interfering.
Long story short: about an hour later I finally convinced the user that the wireless keyboard and mouse in the office above his (in the same company) was interfereing. Found out after that they had purchased several of the same make and model wireless keyboards and mice. Still not sure what users hear when we say "what's changed?" but that is another thread.

Wed Dec 13 16:19:40 2006: 2724   TonyLawrence

Right: might as well ask what color their eyes are for all the good it will do :-)

Wed Dec 13 16:25:09 2006: 2725   BigDumbDinosaur

I ran into this over five years ago with an office where the owner's son decided that it would be cool to fix up everyone with a wireless keyboard. To this day, I go out of my way to discourage the use of wireless anything in offices.

Wed Jan 10 20:27:51 2007: 2808   sgnlzero

Okay, wireless 'could' be the answer but here's another possibility (I have seen it twice so far), the common denominator was the users we're using laptops with a standard install of Microsoft Office. Office by default turns speech recognition 'on'. Since the laptop has a microphone, any noise is taken as speech. The computer will try and decipher the speech to text (the noiser the area, the more processor intensive) and depending upon where the mouse is located (if over a text window, it will try and type what it hears) or if it is over an Internet Explorer window, it can slow the internet down noticibly while it tries to dechipher what it has heard to convert to text.

Microsoft KB articles are 315765 and 316215


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