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A dongle is a piece of hardware used for software protection that is connected to a computer's I/O port to ensure that software is executed securely. The dongle must be present for the software to run.
The dongle’s main purpose is to prevent piracy or unauthorized execution of software and its use is generally limited to high-end software with a small core market, such as audio mixing or computer assisted design software.
Other terms for dongle include hardware key, hardware token or security device.
Dongles can reduce software piracy and can maximize profit for software vendors. However, the use of dongles is strongly resisted by customers because most people are not willing to put up with the hassle of extra hardware. As such, dongles have mostly failed to achieve wide market penetration.
Although dongles provide some measure of security against piracy, they can be cracked by modifying the software to send the signal that the dongle is attached to the computer running the software even when it is not.
In addition, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act passed in the U.S. in 2010 makes it legal to run software to bypass an external security device such as a dongle under several specific circumstances.