A dongle is a very small hardware which should be connected to a computer and helps verify the authenticity of software. It also helps authenticated software run more smoothly as compared when an unauthenticated is used. Because of this, this hardware device becomes a high-end tool for the prevention of unauthorized copying of software.
The initial types of dongles are usually connected to the computer via a serial port. When the user wants to run protected software, the computer first searches for the dongle before it totally loaded. Otherwise, it will not even budge. Unfortunately, this can easily be broken by computer experts merely by changing the value in the software that indicate the presence of the device and pre-set it to a positive.
Unlike the ancient types, modern dongles are attached to the computer via the Universal Serial Bus (USB) port just like when plugging a flash drive of other devices. The advancement of technology has given way for the use of encryptions. Through this, an encrypted message or request for a validation key is first sent to the dongle which in turn would answer in an encrypted message. Since encryptions are very difficult to crack, it is next to impossible to fool the software into thinking that the hardware device is already present. A more secured encryption would prevent the software to run in this situation since it would have missing parts in its code.
Further, modern types of this hardware device also use techniques for reverse engineering and a non-volatile memory.
A large number of programs make full use of dongles. In an effort to prevent piracy and use of unauthenticated software, many companies have tried to use this hardware device in their computer products, only to be opposed by the consumers. Because of this, this device is now limited to the very expensive packages and vertical software like Computer Assisted Design software, MICROS systems software, applications for Digital Audio Workstation and some translation memory packages. Likewise, printing presses and pre-press software needs this device before they work.
The more popular makers of dongles include Matrix, SafeNet (formerly Rainbow) Feitian Technologies, Aladdin, Microcosm Ltd., WIBU-SYSTEMS, SG-Lock, UniKey of SecuTech, SenseLock, Spyrus and MARX. Pace ILok Smart Key, meanwhile, is used by most Pro Tools and plug-ins.
Though the technology of the dongle has been thoroughly studies and developed, there still are several issues against it. Aside from not being a genuine solution to trusted client problems, the counterfeit versions of computer programs have circumvented the code for dongles which totally defeats the purpose of the said device. Hardware cloning, which is very rampant nowadays, is also a grave threat to dongles. In lieu of this, dongle vendors have made use of smart card products as a replacement which actually is more secure as it is commonly used by the banks and the military.
Dongles come in several names. They could be called a hardware key, hardware token or just a security device. Some even went as specific as calling it as HASP (Hardware against Software Piracy).