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Saturday, July 17, 2004

Xanga and other teen 'hangouts'

About 13% of the students at San Jose's Evergreen High School have blogs on, and that's just one online journal site. One student told the San Jose Mercury News that he visits Xanga "like 50 times a day," either to post to his own blog or visit someone else's. Most of the blogs are innocuous, some cruel. "Evergreen's Xanga crowd operated largely under the radar of school officials until a parent called attention to an anonymous blog called Mc_Smack_Crew that mocks students with digitally altered photos and vicious messages," the Mercury News reports. "School officials alerted San Jose police, who opened a 'hate crime' investigation. The police decided last month not to press charges, calling it a 'case of name-calling, however foul'." The school blocked access to the site from school computers, which of course did nothing to help the site's young victims. But most of the Evergreen blogs are the typical teen diary fare (or the digital sort): true confessions, gossip, school news, flirtations, virtual relationships, and seeking validation through peers' posts/responses and links. "Most teens abide by an unwritten code of the blogosphere: What happens online stays online," e.g., test relationships - reading an interesting prospect's blog, learning all about him, flirting with him via IM and posts on his blog, deciding he's a little too weird, and ending it, without ever having had even a phone conversation.
Just for context, about every 5.8 seconds a new blog is created somewhere in the world, The Register reports. That translates to 8,000-17,000 new blogs every day.
Interesting note for parents: The secrets in today's teen diaries are open to the public but not to parents, who remain generally clueless about them. In fact, some parents feel they're invading their child's privacy if they do what everybody else does, go to the blog, and read it (see an example in "Daughter's blog, mom's dilemma"). Would you agree? Is it wrong to read your kid's Web site? Please email us your answers!

Friday, July 16, 2004

What if our PC's a zombie?!

You may've heard of the new Digital Age kind of zombie. I hope so, because it could be your family PC. Actually, the odds aren't great that your computer has been turned into a dummy machine run by malicious hackers, but the probability is growing - especially in households with very connected kids (gamers, IM-ers, file-sharers, Web researchers, emailers, contest-enterers, etc.). So if your PC's acting strangely (unexplained shutdowns, error messages, etc.), it'd be good to have a family chat about what everybody's using the Internet for - what applications they're using, what's being downloaded, how Preferences are being configured, and so on. It'd also be good to have the anti-virus software (which I trust you've installed and kept up-to-date) scan the PC(s) for viruses. That's all a zombie is: a computer that has been infected by a PC-controlling virus. Virus writers' favorite goal these days is not to damage your computer, but rather to take control of it altogether - turn it into a zombie (see "One very illegal summer job" below for how groups of teen are allegedly capitalizing on controlling networks of these dummy PCs all over the world). When this happens, the quite reasonable question comes up: "If our PC's a zombie, what can we do about it?" For the answer, click here (to this week's SafeKids/NetFamilyNewsletter). We'd love to hear your family's stories about computer viruses - email me anytime via or post a response here!

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Michigan: Kids' do-not-email list

For this law to work, a lot will depend on execution. "Michigan will soon become the second state [after Utah] to make it illegal to certain types of spam to kids," the Detroit News reports. Parents will be able to add their children's email addresses to a state-run do-not-email registry modeled after the federal do-not-call list run by the Federal Trade Commission. Anyone who emails those addresses about porn, gambling, tobacco, drugs, or any products children can't legally purchase could be fined $5,000 per email and be required to turn over their computer, according to the law, which has passed the state legislature and been sent to Gov. Jennifer Granholm (her spokesperson said she will sign the bill). The idea of a do-not-spam list for kids "has attracted questions about its enforcement," according to the Detroit News. "Some parents are skittish about giving their kids’ e-mail addresses to the government." The FTC rejected the idea of a US do-not-spam system as unworkable.

A more workable solution - for anyone who wants only kid-friendly email in their in-boxes - might be a children's email-filtering product or service. There are a lot of options, among them:,,,, and Email me if you try any of these and like it - your experience would be helpful to other parents!

UK teen arrested for spamming

The teenager was fired from his $223/week job so, in return, he bombarded the company's servers with 5 million emails, crippling its Web site, CNET reports. All he did was search for a spam tool (software) on the Net, download it, and proceed to send 100 emails a second to his former employer. "He now faces six months in prison or a fine of up to $9,283," CNET adds.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Spyware: Not just a privacy prob

Here's a new rule for child surfers: Don't click on "yes" to all those "Download this!" offers they run into on the sites they visit - check with Mom or Dad first. "Why?" they might ask. There's a strong chance they'll be downloading spyware, or "scumware," as the Wall Street Journal's Lee Gomes calls it. It can "reset your home page to a porn site ... and then refuse to let you change the page back" (see our "Spyware & an 8-year-old" last week) or "hijack your search requests and then direct them to its own page" or even "secretly record the keystrokes you use to log in to bank accounts and then send the info off to who knows where," Lee writes, adding: "A program making the rounds in Europe installs a piece of software that dials up expensive 976 numbers the spyware authors have set up," running up large family phone bills. There's a fund of information on spyware and what to do about it at

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Graphic images online

Parents worry about the graphic images children are exposed to in the media, but Americans in general are divided about what should be available on the Web. Nearly half of Americans disapprove of posting images online that have been deemed too horrific to run in newspapers and on TV, according to a recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life project. But "24% went online to view some of the most graphic war images," and "of those who have seen the images, 28% actively sought them out." When viewed, the images elicit mixed feelings as well as mixed opinions. Pew found that, though "millions of Internet users want to be able to view the graphic war images and they see the Internet as an alternative source of news and information from traditional media ... many who do venture outside the traditional and familiar standards of the mainstream news organizations to look at the images online end up feeling very uncomfortable. Women are particularly opposed to the display of the images and are much less likely than men to have viewed the images online." Released late last week, the nationwide survey was conducted in May, when some of the most violent imagery was coming out of Iraq. Here's coverage of this survey by Newsday (New York), the Chicago Sun-Times, the Associated Press, and ClickZ Stats.

One very illegal summer job

Unbeknownst to countless families around the world, groups of teenage malicious hackers are renting out zombie family PCs to "spammers, fraudsters, and digital saboteurs," Reuters reports. "Zombie PCs?" you might ask. They're regular old Net-connected home computers that have been infected by "trojan" worms and viruses that allow the virus writers to control the infected PCs. "The result is a powerful network of zombie PCs that security experts call a 'botnet'," according to Reuters. Scotland Yard's computer crime unit told Reuters these botnets are networks of as many as 10,000-30,000 computers that small groups of young people, probably working out of their bedrooms, are renting to anybody for as little as $100 an hour. Consequently, "there may be millions of such PCs around the world doing the bidding of crime gangs," say computer security experts who believe the gangs are using these kids as child labor - a new, technically sophisticated form of it. As for the botnets they've developed, experts are worried the people who manipulate them will move beyond mere spamming to taking down key data networks and major Web sites.

Kid-tracking tech: Japan & UK

A primary school in Osaka will soon be testing a high-tech way of knowing children's whereabouts at all times. RFID (for radio frequency identification) chips will be attached to students' schoolbags or clothing tags and read by readers (like bar-code readers in grocery stores) that will be "installed in school gates and other key locations," UK-based reports. Legoland in Denmark is already using this "Kidspotter" tech. As of last May, children entering the amusement park were given RFID bracelets that could be tracked anywhere within its boundaries, so that parents could be called on their cell phones about their lost child's location, reported in a separate article. Just one caveat: the marketing angle. The chips will also tell Lego exactly where customers go, which will be great for "insightfully targeted marketing campaigns for the perennially popular Lego brick toy sets."

Interestingly, tracking kids by cell phones, on the other hand, has some important detractors in the UK. "A coalition of children's charities has urged the UK government to set strict controls on services that let parents track their children by their mobiles," the BBC reports. The organizations are worried that, as more and more companies market the technology without legal safeguards, the tech can get into the wrong hands. "The onus is on the child to decide whether to accept or reject the request, if it is not from a parent."

Monday, July 12, 2004

Another view of hackers

We hear from the media much more about malicious hackers than about the regular kind - many of whom are young and still living at home! So, because many news people put a negative twist on the word "hacker," we thought fellow parents might be interested in the way hackers view themselves. Insights are provided in this USATODAY article (part of a series) on a conference in New York over the weekend called "The Fifth HOPE" (HOPE for Hackers On Planet Earth).

File-sharing's up

Unless your family's had "the discussion," chances are any file-sharers at your house are swapping tunes as much as ever. Despite recording industry's thousands of lawsuits, last month file-sharing was up 19% over that of June 2003 - "8.3 million people were online at any one time" using P2P services such as Kazaa and eDonkey, USATODAY reports. Kazaa is becoming less popular, while New York-based eDonkey and Israel-based iMesh are picking up some of that P2P traffic. Most of the files being swapped were tunes (1 billion songs were available for downloading last month, up from 820 million a year ago). But parents, look at this: porn videos and images came in second. So back to "the discussion" - about file-sharing activity at your house. The very best way to start might be to discuss PC security: e.g., how the eDonkey software's preferences have been configured, what's being shared (if anything), if the kid's concerned about spyware, and whether we shouldn't take a look at all this at the PC together. For more discussion points, see "Teen writes: Kids like P2P risks", "A tech-literate dad on file-sharing" and "File-sharing realities for families." After you've been through the security issues, it might be interesting to ask your kids about the ethics involved. We'd love to hear how the discussion goes - email me anytime via