A software protection dongle is a device used to protect content from unauthorized access. It is a hardware key that comes with protection mechanisms, such as the user’s own product key. When attached to a computer or an electronic appliance, it decodes sensitive content or unlocks software functionalities.
Software protection dongles are usually attached to a personal computer (PC) through parallel ports. On Macs, that translates to the Android Debug Bridge (ADB) port.
Software protection dongles provide security by making computers inaccessible or inoperable when they are not plugged in. In some cases, protected software can operate without the dongle but only in restricted mode.
Read More about a “Software Protection Dongle”
In case you’re wondering what a software protection dongle looks like, here’s a hardware key (HASP) dongle attached to an LPT or the parallel printer port:
How Does a Software Protection Dongle Work?
A software protection dongle provides electronic copy and content protection. Security is made possible because the dongle has been preprogrammed to give a product code or an encryption key when asked. The dongle does this electronically when connected to the appropriate port on the hardware it is protecting.
What Kinds of Programs Can You Use a Software Protection Dongle For?
Software protection dongles are often used for:
- Software that need protection against piracy and illegal copying
- Applications that require license management and control, along with those that have advanced remote update capabilities
- Data storage devices that require encryption with advanced cryptographic algorithms
- Systems that demand flexible authentication modes
Why Are Software Protection Dongles No Longer in Much Use Today?
Software protection dongles are no longer widely used today compared to when they were first introduced. The primary reason lies in the weaknesses found in their protocol. Here are some of the issues users faced:
Poor Security Implementation
The first versions of software protection dongles were easy to crack because they usually came with a simple program. Merely inserting the device into the appropriate port already lets a user into a system.
More modern versions of software protection dongles came with built-in encryption. They also used fabrication techniques to prevent malicious actors from reverse-engineering them. Some even had nonvolatile memories that contained the software’s vital features so users can’t use the computers without them.
In some cases, threat actors cloned software protection dongles when connected to the devices they protect. The cloned dongle becomes useless, but the clones work. In response, dongle vendors incorporated smart cards into their products so these can be used in organizations with strict security requirements, such as banks and the military.
Prone to Damage and Loss
Software protection dongles have also been criticized because they can easily get damaged or lost, translating to huge costs and increased chances of getting breached.
Examples of Software Protection Dongles Still Available Today
Despite their niche use, software protection dongles are still sold today, such as:
SecureDongle X is a plug-and-play device that provides advanced software protection. Its features include a changeable password, a unique identifier, and a comprehensive software development kit (SDK) that offers simple protection for software developers.
KEYLOK enables users to integrate copy protection into applications. It also helps safeguard legacy systems with its wide range of sample codes. Like most dongles, it comes built-in with a program that checks for a valid license, preventing unlicensed users from using a program.
ROCKEY2 provides protection compatible with numerous operating systems (OSs), including Windows 2000, XP, 2003, and Vista, Linux, and macOS. It also allows additional programming with languages that include Python, PowerBuilder, Java, C#, and FoxPro, to name a few.
Despite not providing overall security for sensitive content, software protection dongles proved useful in protecting digital media against widespread piracy and copyright violation.