John worked for an MSP with a broad range of clients. An hour after arriving home from work one day, he received a call from a local doctor’s office. Kelly, the office manager, barely let him finish his “Hello.”

“I’m so glad you’re there! I think someone’s hacked Dr. Gates’ computer!” she cried. “He’s trying to enter patient notes, and someone else is typing on his screen- like, no joke, I’m watching it happen! I thought it might be our software developer, Jason, but he’s on vacation this week and this doesn’t make any sense. Did someone hack in? Could they do that?"

John frowned, skeptical. He helped support the office’s network, and he doubted a successful attack would grant someone remote access to a Windows box. Even if it had, he really doubted such an attacker would announce their presence in such a fashion. “What’s being typed, exactly?”
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“It’s just- it’s words, but they make no sense! Just random words.”

“What other files have they hacked into?” a new voice broke in, full of gravel and grouse. “This is gonna be a HIPAA violation- big HIPAA violation, you know that? Do I have to get my credit card companies on the line?”

“No, wait- don’t leave, Dr. Gates! I have John here.” Kelly put him on speaker. “John, any thoughts?”

John bit his lip. “Can you ask people nearby to stop using their computers for a few minutes? Maybe one of their wireless keyboards is accidentally tied to Dr. Gates’ computer.” Not likely, but John had seen it happen before.

“It’s someone in this office?!” Dr. Gates cried. “Who’s the prankster? I’ll-”

“Sure, hang on.” Kelly muted the line.

John paced about his living room. Above soulless muzak rose an equally soulless voice, repeatedly assuring him Your call is very important to us. Stay on the line, we’ll be right-

“John? That didn’t help. It’s still- oh, there it goes again!” Kelly cried. “It’s saying ’STSS, hang line EMI of the patient throughout, with increased PMX, we find that the symptoms-”

“He doesn’t need a running commentary!” Dr. Gates cried. “Just get him to stop it!”

“I’m just trying to explain-”

“Kelly?” John interrupted, frown deepening. “I’m gonna jump on my computer. Can you help me remote into Dr. Gates’ machine? I’ll talk you through it.”

This took some time, but it wasn’t Kelly’s fault. There was a point in the process where she had to enter a 6-digit code, but every time she placed the cursor in the text box, it filled up with words.

Eventually, John got connected. Dr. Gates had a Word document open that started normally, but progressed into madness. The last ten lines held medical jargon and acronyms- all spelled correctly, in a nonsensical word order.

“OK, do you see the screen?” Kelly asked.

“How much longer will this take? I’ve got a lot of notes to type up!” Dr. Gates complained.

“I’m sorry, Doctor, but we’re trying-“

Meanwhile, John watched words continue to appear at the end of the document. evaporate patsies drunks schloss acupoint improving

John bolted upright in his chair. “Kelly? Doctor? I need you both to be very quiet for a few seconds. Then, one of you say the word ‘seven’ loudly and clearly.”

They complied. The cursor moved to a new line, blinked, then suddenly a word appeared:

seven

“OK! I think speech recognition is enabled on your computer, Dr. Gates,” John said. “Your microphone is picking up-"

“Wha- speech recognition?” Dr. Gates repeated. “I don’t use that!”

“Here, lemme check…” John browsed to the appropriate setting in the Control Panel. Sure enough, Speech Recognition was enabled. “Here- I’ll disable it. That should stop the phantom words from being typed out on screen.”

“Phew! That’s a relief,” Kelly said, laughing.

Dr. Gates muttered to himself, still incredulous. “How do we make sure the hacker doesn’t turn it on again?”

John’s relief vanished. How had speech recognition been enabled in the first place? As far as he knew, there were no keyboard shortcuts one could accidentally press. One had to go to the Start Menu or Control Panel, browse to Speech Recognition, and click the link to enable it. Windows even presented a tutorial for adjusting the microphone and training on how to speak commands, so the stealthy qualities of this feature were nonexistent.

“Uh… are you sure you didn’t enable it to begin with?” John asked.

“Of course I didn’t!”

“Does anyone else use this-“

“No!”

“Well… at least if the hackers ever come back, I’ve shown you how to defeat them.”

Kelly laughed again. “That’s good enough! I took notes on what you just did there, I’ll make sure to pass this along to everyone here. Thank you, John!”

The call ended on a high note, but the issue remained a head-scratcher. John wondered what Dr. Gates could prescribe for that.