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CueCat barcode scanner and interposer cables with male and female PS/2 connectors

The CueCat, styled :CueCat with a leading colon, is a cat-shaped handheld barcode reader that was given away free to Internet users starting in 2000 by the now-defunct Digital Convergence Corporation (which often styled its own name as Digital:Convergence Corporation).

By year-end 2001, barcodes were no longer distributed for the device, and scanning with the device using its original software no longer yielded results. However, third-party software can decode the lightweight encryption in the device, allowing it to be used as a general-purpose wand-type barcode reader. The CueCat can read several common barcode types, in addition to the proprietary CUE barcodes which had been promoted by Digital Convergence.


The CueCat was named CUE[1] for the unique bar code which the device scanned and CAT[2] as a wordplay on "Keystroke Automation Technology".[3] It enabled a user to open a link to an Internet URL by scanning a barcode — called a "cue" by Digital Convergence — appearing in an article or catalog or on some other printed matter. In this way, a user could be directed to a web page containing related information without having to type in a URL. The company asserted that the ability of the device to direct users to a specific URL, rather than a domain name, was valuable.[4] In addition, television broadcasters could use an audio tone in programs or commercials that, if a TV was connected to a computer via an audio cable, acted as a web address shortcut.[5]

The CueCat was connected to computers in the same way as a keystroke logger, as a "keyboard wedge", interposer, or pass-through between the keyboard PS/2 jack and the motherboard PS/2 port. Because of USB-PS/2 compatibility, USB-PS/2 adapters may be optionally used. A native USB version of the CueCat scanner hardware was also produced, but fewer of them were made before all manufacturing of the hardware was discontinued.[6]


A CueCat "cue". The bars are tilted 22.5° to the left, both for aesthetic reasons and to avoid Lemelson parallel barcode patent concerns.

The CueCat patents are held by Jeffry Jovan Philyaw,[7] who changed his name to Jovan Hutton Pulitzer after the failure of CueCat.[8][9] Belo Corporation, parent company of the Dallas Morning News and owner of many TV stations, invested US$37.5 million in Digital Convergence, RadioShack $30 million, Young & Rubicam $28 million, and Coca-Cola $10 million.[10] Other investors included General Electric, and E. W. Scripps Company.[11] The total amount invested was $185 million.[12]

Each CueCat cost RadioShack[13] about $6.50 to manufacture.[14]

Starting in late 2000 and continuing for about a year, advertisements, special web editions, and editorial content containing CueCat barcodes appeared in many US periodicals, including Parade, Forbes, and Wired. The Dallas Morning News and other Belo-owned newspapers printed the barcodes next to major articles and regular features like stocks and weather. Commercial publications such as Adweek, Brandweek, and Mediaweek employed the technology.[15] The CueCat bar codes also appeared in select Verizon Yellow Pages,[16] providing advertisers with a link to additional information.

For a time, RadioShack printed these barcodes in its product catalogs, and distributed CueCat devices through its retail chain to customers at no charge. Forbes magazine mailed out the first 830,000 CueCats as gifts to their subscribers, since the magazine was starting to print CRQ ("See Our Cue") barcodes in their magazine.[17] Wired magazine mailed over 500,000 of the free devices as gifts to their subscribers. Each publisher private-branded the CueCat hardware they sent to their mailing list.[18][19]

Marketing partners[edit]

Organizations that used the :CueCat and compatible :CRQ software:[20]




Broadcast stations[edit]

User experience[edit]

Installation of software and hardware, configuration, and registration took around an hour.[21] Registration required the user's name, age, and e-mail address, and demanded completion of a lengthy survey with invasive questions about shopping habits, hobbies, and educational level.[21] Then users could scan bar codes on groceries, bar codes on books, and custom bar codes in ads in magazines, newspapers, Verizon Yellow Pages, and RadioShack catalogs. The :CRQ software then used that unique serial number from the device to return a URL which directed the user's browser to the sponsored website.[21] It also created a permanent advertisement-displaying taskbar on the user's computers, and could log the web-surfing habits associated with a user's real name and email address.[21]


In The Wall Street Journal, Walter Mossberg criticized CueCat: "In order to scan in codes from magazines and newspapers, you have to be reading them in front of your PC. That's unnatural and ridiculous." Mossberg wrote that the device "fails miserably. Using it is just unnatural." He concluded that the CueCat "isn't worth installing and using, even though it's available free of charge".[22] Joel Spolsky, a computer technology reviewer, also criticized the device as "not solving a problem" and characterized the venture as a "feeble business idea".[23]

The CueCat is now widely described as a commercial failure. It was ranked twentieth in "The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time" by PC World magazine in 2006.[24] The CueCat's critics said the device was ultimately of little use. Joe Salkowski of the Chicago Tribune wrote, "You have to wonder about a business plan based on the notion that people want to interact with a soda can",[25] while Debbie Barham of the Evening Standard quipped that the CueCat "fails to solve a problem which never existed".[26] In December 2009, the popular gadget blog Gizmodo voted the CueCat the #1 worst invention of the decade of the "2000s". In 2010, Time magazine included it on a list of "The 50 worst Inventions",[27] adding that people didn't accept "the idea of reading their magazines next to a wired cat-shaped scanner".

The CueCat device was controversial, initially because of privacy concerns about its collection of aggregate user data.[28][29] Each CueCat has a unique serial number, and users suspected that Digital Convergence could compile a database of all barcodes scanned by a given user and connect it to the user's name and address. For this reason, and because the demographic market targeted by Digital Convergence was unusually tech-savvy, numerous websites arose detailing instructions for "declawing" the CueCat — blocking or encrypting the data it sent to Digital Convergence. Digital Convergence registered the domain "digitaldemographics.com", giving additional credence to privacy concerns about the use of data.[citation needed]

Security breach[edit]

According to Internet technologist and Interhack founder Matt Curtin, each scan delivered the product code, the user's ID and the scanner's ID back to Digital Convergence.[30][31][32]

The data format[7] was proprietary, and was scrambled so the barcode data could not be read as plain text. However, the barcode itself is closely related to Code 128, and the scanner was also capable of reading EAN/UPC and other symbologies, such as Priority Mail, UPC-A, UPC-E, EAN-13, EAN-8, 2-of-5 interleaved, CODABAR, CODE39, CODE128, and ISBN.[33] Because of the weak obfuscation of the data, meant only to protect the company under DMCA guidelines (like the DVD protection Content Scramble System), software for decoding the CueCat's output quickly appeared on the Internet, followed by a plethora of unofficial applications.[34][35]

":CRQ" ("see our cue"), the desktop software, intercepted the data from both the keyboard and the CueCat, before passing it on to the operating system. Versions for both Windows 32-bit or Mac OS 9 were included. Users of this software were required to register with their ZIP code, gender, and email address. This registration process enabled the device to deliver relevant content to a single or multiple users in a household.

Privacy groups warned that it could be used to track readers' online behavior because each unit has a unique identifier.[36] Belo officials said they would not track individual CueCat users but would gather anonymous information grouped by age, gender and ZIP code.[11]

In September 2000, security watchdog website Securitywatch.com notified[37] Digital Convergence of a security vulnerability on the Digital Convergence website that exposed private information about CueCat users.[38] Digital Convergence immediately shut down that part of their website, and their investigation concluded that approximately 140,000 CueCat users who had registered their CueCat were exposed to a breach that revealed their name, email address, age range, gender and zip code. This was not a breach of the main user database itself, but a flat text file used only for reporting purposes that was generated by ColdFusion code that was saved on a publicly available portion of the Digital Convergence web server.

This failure was given a multi-citation Octopus TV "Failure Award" regarding brands that failed to take off and were hacked.[39]


Digital Convergence responded to this security breach by sending an email to those affected by the incident claiming that it was correcting this problem and would be offering them a $10 gift certificate to RadioShack, an investor in Digital Convergence.[38]

The company's initial response to these hacks was to assert that users did not own the devices and had no right to modify or reverse engineer them. Threats of legal action against the hackers swiftly brought on more controversy and criticism.[40] The company changed the licensing agreement several times, adding explicit restrictions, apparently in response to hacker activity. Hackers argued that the changes did not apply retroactively to devices that had been purchased under older versions of the license, and that the thousands of users who received unsolicited CueCats in the mail had neither agreed to nor were legally bound by the license.

No lawsuit was ever brought against "hackers", as this tactic was not employed to go after specific users or the hacker community, but to show "reasonable assertion". This would prevent another corporation from developing integrated software within an operating system or browser, which could take over the device and circumvent the :CRQ supervisory software and the revenue model that Digital Convergence desired.[41]

In May 2001, Digital Convergence fired most of its 225-person workforce.[42]

In September 2001, Belo Corporation, CueCat investor and owner of newspapers and TV stations, who had sent at least 200,000 free CueCats to its readers, wrote off their $37.5 million investment,[11] and stopped using CueCat technology with newspapers's editions, notably The Press-Enterprise, The Dallas Morning News, and The Providence Journal.

Investors in CueCat lost their $185 million. Technology journalist Scott Rosenberg called the CueCat a "Rube Goldberg contraption", a "massive flop", and a "fiasco".[10]


In 2001, Computerworld named CueCat as a Laureate in the Media Arts & Entertainment category.[43]

In 2001, Software and Information Industry Association named Digital Convergence Corp.'s :CRQ Technology as Best Reference Tool.[44]

Surplus liquidation[edit]

In June 2005, a liquidator offered two million CueCats for sale at $0.30 each (in quantities of 500,000 or more).[45]

Once available for free, the device can now be found on sale at eBay for prices ranging from $5 to as much as $100.[46][33]

Open source[edit]

Hobbyists have reverse-engineered the firmware, software, and the customer database.[35][47][48][49][50][51] Other unrelated companies sold and supported surplus new CueCats as low-cost barcode scanners for use with their software, such as the Readerware library cataloging utility.[6] Eventually, the widespread availability of barcode scanner smartphone apps made the CueCat's capabilities mostly superfluous.[original research?]


  • Grand, Joe; Mitnick, Kevin D.; Russell, Ryan (2004-01-29). "Declawing Your CueCat". Hardware Hacking: Have Fun while Voiding your Warranty. Elsevier. pp. 48–82. ISBN 9781932266832. OCLC 741395468.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "United States Patent: 6708208 - Unique bar code for indicating a link between a product and a remote location on a web network".
  2. ^ "United States Patent: D432539 - Keystroke automator".
  3. ^ "Keystroke Automation Technology Trademark - Serial Number 75875851 :: Justia Trademarks". trademarks.justia.com.
  4. ^ Kaufman, Leslie (October 6, 2000). "Speaking in Bar Code; Personal Scanners Link Products Directly to Consumers". The New York Times. Retrieved November 10, 2001.
  5. ^ Stepanek, Marcia (September 28, 2000). "The CueCat Is on the Prowl: This gizmo is on the cutting edge of e-marketing. But with each swipe, it tracks your moves through cyberspace". Bloomberg Businessweek. New York City. Archived from the original on 2000-10-17. Retrieved November 10, 2011.
  6. ^ a b "How do I scan a barcode with a CueCat scanner? - Knowledge Base". Readerware. The Readerware Corporation. October 5, 2019. Retrieved 2023-03-09.
  7. ^ a b "Jeffry Jovan Philyaw Inventions, Patents and Patent Applications - Justia Patents Search". patents.justia.com.
  8. ^ Wilonsky, Robert (October 25, 2007). "CueCat Inventor Returns. With What? Not Quite Sure. Something To Do With Interwebs". Dallas Observer. Retrieved November 10, 2011.
  9. ^ Celeste, Eric (April 10, 2003). "Crystal Clear". Dallas Observer. Retrieved November 10, 2011.
  10. ^ a b Rosenberg, Scott (July 11, 2001). "CueCatastrophe: Next to the company that tried to wire Web users to bar-code scanners, money-burning dot-coms like Webvan don't look quite so bad". Salon.com. Retrieved November 10, 2011.
  11. ^ a b c "Belo Scratches CueCat". Adweek. Associated Press. September 7, 2001. Retrieved 25 June 2021. Belo's WFAA-TV in Dallas used a related technology that used electronic signals transmitted to viewers' computers if they were attached to the TV with a special cable. But readers and viewers skipped over the cues and preferred to go directly to the newspaper and TV station Web sites, said Belo senior vice president Skip Cass. Newspaper and online columnists ridiculed the CueCat as an unwieldy device that assumed people read newspapers while seated at their computer.
  12. ^ Meyer, Katherine (May 3, 2006). "The Best of the Worst: CueCat Falls Flat". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved November 10, 2011.
  13. ^ Whitley, Glenna (2001-11-29). "The Suckers". D Magazine. Dallas. Archived from the original on 2001-11-29. Retrieved 25 June 2021. Steve Forbes "'[The CueCat] will change the way you use the Internet forever The Mark: David Edmondson Title: President and COO, RadioShack Corp. Invested: $30 million Commitment: Manufactured CueCats and distributed them free at all RadioShack outlets. The Mark: Steve Forbes Title: Publisher, Forbes Invested: At least $2 million Commitment: Sent more than 800,000 subscribers CueCat and software. Quote: "[The CueCat] will change the way you use the Internet forever."
  14. ^ Salkowski, Joe. "CueCat was cute, but dogged by reluctant Web consumers". Chicago Tribune. Tribune Media Services. Archived from the original on 2021-06-25. Retrieved 25 June 2021. Every time someone uses a CueCat, two things happen. First they're directed to the exact Web page that an advertiser wants them to see, delivering the equivalent of the elusive "click-throughs" that banner ads usually fail to produce. Then Digital Convergence is notified of exactly which user is visiting which page through which bar code. In this way, CueCat lets companies track not only online preferences but offline behavior as well, such as people's soft drink preferences and what magazines they read. ... The scanners cost about $6.50 a pop, and they were distributed for free to magazine subscribers and electronics store customers. But as soon as millions of gadget-loving consumers started using their new feline friends, the money would start rolling in. By now, you've already guessed the punch line: Nobody used them.
  15. ^ Coursey, David. "CueCat and corporate cluelessness". ZDNet.
  16. ^ "Digital:Convergence Nabs Verizon Yellow Pages Deal". ClickZ. March 28, 2001.
  17. ^ "CueCat Rollout Proceeds Amid Debate". www.washingtonpost.com. Archived from the original on 2006-03-11.
  18. ^ Johnston, Leslie (November 12, 2013). "Before You Were Born: The Hardware Edition | The Signal". blogs.loc.gov.
  19. ^ "Hardware Review: CueCat". computeme.tripod.com.
  20. ^ "Affiliate Partners". getcuecat.com. Archived from the original on 2000-10-17. Retrieved 25 June 2021.
  21. ^ a b c d Salkowski, Joe. "Cuecat - Just a Lap Dog for Internet Advertisers". Chicago Tribune. Archived from the original on 2021-02-24. Retrieved 25 June 2021. To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at joes@azstarnet.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.
  22. ^ Mossberg, Walter S. (October 12, 2000). "CueCat Fails to Meet Its Promise Of Being Convenient and Useful". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved November 10, 2011.
  23. ^ Spolsky, Joel (September 12, 2000). "Wasting Money on Cats". joelonsoftare.com. Retrieved November 12, 2011.
  24. ^ Tynan, Dan (May 26, 2006). "The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time". PCWorld. Archived from the original on April 17, 2011. Retrieved April 4, 2011.
  25. ^ Salkowski, Joe (2000-09-25). :cuecat Just A Lap Dog For Internet Advertisers.Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 14 November 2017. Archived 2017-11-15 at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^ Whitley, Glenna. "The Reviews". D Magazine. Dallas. Archived from the original on 2001-12-04. Retrieved 25 June 2021. Debbie Barham, The Evening Standard; Sandra Brown Kelly, Roanoke Times & World News; Russell Shaw, Broadcasting & Cable; Sunday Times, London; Dave Plotnikoff, San Jose Mercury News; Jeff Salkowski, Chicago Tribune; David Coursey, ZDNet News; Edward Baig, USA Today; John Dorschner, Miami Herald; Walter S. Mossberg, Wall Street Journal; Richard Des Ruisseaux, Louisville Courier-Journal; Leander Kahney, Wired; Clive Thompson, Newsday;
  27. ^ Dan Fletcher (May 27, 2010). "CueCat". Time.
  28. ^ Colin J.Bennett (2001). "Cookies, web bugs, webcams and cue cats: Patterns of surveillance on the world wide web". Ethics and Information Technology. 3 (3). Berlin: Springer Science+Business Media: 195–208. doi:10.1023/A:1012235815384. S2CID 32667151.
  29. ^ "Curiosity killed the CueCat", Network Security, 2000 (11): 2, 2000, doi:10.1016/S1353-4858(00)85003-5
  30. ^ Rosencrance, Linda (2000-08-01). "Sharing of personal data by Web sites sparks new privacy controversy". Computerworld. Retrieved 25 June 2021.
  31. ^ Curtin, Matt (2002). Developing trust : online privacy and security. Berkeley, CA: Apress. ISBN 9781893115729.
  32. ^ Lemos, Robert. "Will privacy kill the CueCat?". ZDNet. Archived from the original on 2018-05-31. Retrieved 25 June 2021. The Privacy Foundation plans to deliver the latest blow to Internet data collector Digital:Convergence Corp. on Friday when the organization releases a report criticizing the company's collection of potentially identifying information over the Internet. ... The moderated e-mail digest Privacy Forum and the Internet-technology consulting firm Interhack have both pointed out shortcomings in the company's privacy policy and information collection practices. ... Consumers believing the company's data collection claims will be key to Digital:Convergence's standardizing the CueCat system as the way to connect real-world objects to additional information on the Web, stated the startup in its application for an initial public offering. 'Even the perception of security and privacy concerns, whether or not valid, may inhibit Internet user acceptance of our technology and products,' read the statement.
  33. ^ a b "CueCat PS/2 Standard Barcode Scanner". Amazon.com. Archived from the original on 2020-11-25. Retrieved 25 June 2021. Reads UPC, Priority Mail, etc., barcodes Specific formats include: UPC-A, UPC-E, EAN-13, EAN-8, 2-of-5 interleaved, CODABAR, CODE39, CODE128, and ISBN
  34. ^ Kevin Poulsen (2000-09-19). "Hackers skin CueCat". Securityfocus.com. Retrieved 2015-02-15.
  35. ^ a b Toren, Michael C. (2001-01-01). "Mirror -- Open Source CueCat related software". michael.toren.net. Archived from the original on 2001-04-28. Retrieved 25 June 2021.
  36. ^ Jesdanun, Anick (2001-05-21). "Tinkering by Vegas man, others, improves tech devices - Las Vegas Sun Newspaper". Las Vegas Sun. Archived from the original on 2021-06-25. Retrieved 25 June 2021. Ken Segler likes to fiddle with electronic gadgets in his spare time. So when the i-opener promised Internet access without a full-powered computer, he grabbed one and tinkered away. Soon enough, he figured out how to add a hard drive for storage, turning the $99 Internet appliance into a low-end computer that normally costs $1,000. ... Segler also took apart the CueCat, a mouse-like device that links bar codes in printed ads and catalogues with specialized Web pages. Using an X-acto knife, he disconnected a chip containing a serial number, turning the free device into a regular bar code reader that he could use without worrying about the potential for surveillance ... Digital Convergence Corp., the distributor of the CueCat, is even launching a Web site this month to encourage unofficial uses, such as cataloging CDs and books through their bar codes or linking game cartridges with online cheat sheets.
  37. ^ "Digital:Convergence Experiences Electronic Security Breach". Digital:Convergence. September 15, 2000. Archived from the original on 2000-10-17. Retrieved 25 June 2021. Internet technology company Digital:Convergence Corporation experienced a security breach that may have exposed certain members' names and email addresses. The company was alerted of breach efforts by Peter Thomas at Securitywatch.com.
  38. ^ a b Machkovech, Sam (2015-10-22). "Are a million free Google Cardboard sets doomed to repeat CueCat's history?". Ars Technica. Retrieved 2019-02-14. Major CueCat funder RadioShack later offered a $10 coupon to anybody affected by an eventual private-data leak.
  39. ^ "The Failure Awards for defunct branding .. #9 :CueCat barcode scanner". The Drum. October 10, 2017. Archived from the original on 2021-05-25. The ambition was to make the :CueCat barcode the standard for advertising. A cat designed to work side by side with your mouse. ... To add to its woes, the feline company suffered a security leak when a tech employee left with a development computer and connected to an unsecured net connection and surprise, surprise was hacked. About 140,000 :CueCat users had their personal data stolen including their name, email address, age range, gender and zip code. What was the price of privacy? Digital Convergence offered each victim a $10 gift certificate to Radio Shack.
  40. ^ "Use Of Free Bar-code Scanners Turning Into A Cuecat Fight". Chicago Tribune. 2000-10-09. Retrieved 2015-02-15.
  41. ^ Grand, Joe; Mitnick, Kevin D.; Russell, Ryan (2004-01-29). "Declawing Your CueCat". Hardware Hacking: Have Fun while Voiding your Warranty. Elsevier. p. 78. ISBN 9781932266832. OCLC 741395468.
  42. ^ Whitley, Glenna. "The Dumbest Invention in the History of Computers". D Magazine. Dallas. Archived from the original on 2001-11-14. Retrieved 25 June 2021. On Sept. 6, Belo finally ran up the white flag. In a small story on the front page of the business section, the Morning News announced it was giving up on a promotion it had hyped more than the paper's recent redesign: a device dubbed "CueCat" that read bar codes implanted in stories in the News and on sister TV station WFAA.
  43. ^ "A Search for New Heroes". Computerworld Honors. Archived from the original on April 25, 2012. Retrieved November 7, 2011.
  44. ^ "2001 Winners". CODiE Awards. SIIA. Archived from the original on 2015-08-15. Retrieved 25 June 2021. Best Reference Tool - :CRQ Technology, Digital: Convergence Corp.
  45. ^ "Two million CueCats at $0.30/each". Boing Boing. Archived from the original on 2009-02-20.
  46. ^ Oreskovic, Alexei. "CueCat scanner flashback". Business Insider. Archived from the original on 2015-09-02. Retrieved 25 June 2021.
  47. ^ "oss.lineo.com/cuecat". lineo. Archived from the original on 2000-10-17. Retrieved 25 June 2021. Important Notice ! Once again, although we do not understand why, DigitalConvergence has contacted us regarding the CueCat project, so we are forced to take down the project page again. We are sorry for any inconvenience, and we thank you for your interest and support. We will try to update this page as soon as possible. Pierre-Philippe Coupard
  48. ^ "Forums for UScan Bar Code Scanning System". SourceForge. Archived from the original on 2001-04-21. Retrieved 25 June 2021.
  49. ^ Greene, Thomas C. (2000-09-22). "What the Hell is ... CueCat? A New-Economy marketing gimmick gone horribly wrong ;-)". theregister.com. Archived from the original on 2021-01-26. Retrieved 25 June 2021. A bit of history tells a tale of what can only be described as an idea-mill going live with a high-tech gimmick in the absence of anything resembling high-tech savvy. ... They likely have too many 'concept guys' in control with too little practical, nuts-and-bolts foresight and imagination. ... Then there is the CueCat's serial number, which privacy alarmists see as a potential user-profiling weapon. ... In all, a disastrous start to a marketing concept clearly executed by greedy fools.
  50. ^ Perez-Albuerne, Evelio Domingo. "CueCat Mirror List". ultradrive.com. Archived from the original on 2000-12-04. Retrieved 25 June 2021.
  51. ^ Peri. "CueCat Mirror List". logorrhea.com. Archived from the original on 2000-10-17. Retrieved 25 June 2021. 35 4 * * * wget --quiet --no-host-directories --no-parent --convert-links --directory-prefix=/home/htdocs/cuecat/ --cut-dirs=2 --mirror http://www.logorrhea.com/cuecat/mirrors.html

External links[edit]