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Saturday, August 21, 2004

Beware strange site

It could look like a game to a child. So parents need to be aware of this new "drag-and-drop" security flaw in Windows XP that even the giant new security patch, SP2, doesn't take care of. What kids should be alert to is any effort (such as an email) to get them to go to a strange-looking Web page containing just two lines and an image. The page might tell the visitor to drag the picture across the two lines and drop it, CNET reports. What's actually happening, security experts told CNET, is a malicious program being dragged into a folder on your PC. Next time you restart the computer, the program runs and takes control of it. Secunia, the PC security company that discovered the flaw, said the program could be simplified to require a single click, not even the drag-and-drop exercise. All your kids need to know is not to go to a Web site that someone they don't know has told them to visit, and certainly not to play around on it. It's best not to open spam or strange emails at all, much less click to the Web from them. And tell them to be careful about going to Web sites from instant messages too. Also, just keep your Windows security up-to-date at this page. Microsoft surely will issue a patch for this "vulnerability." Secunia has given this flaw a "highly critical" rating.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Child's IM lose, parent's nightmare

Daughter returns from summer camp eager to IM with her much missed new-found friends. She announces "I can't IM." This is not good news. There is, in fact, a great deal more that suddenly can't be done on the family PC, including Mom's professional work, reports parent and Washington Post reporter Kathleen Day. Kathleen proceeds to spend "$800 and roughly 48 man-hours over nearly three weeks" to fix the family computer.

What would have been the No. 1 preventive measure? Installing a firewall before switching from a modem to a high-speed Internet connection (they already had anti-virus software installed). Over half of home Net users in the US now have high-speed connections, PC World reports, so if your home's one of them, I hope you haven't learned this important preventive measure the way Kathleen's family did - the hard way. The need for a firewall can't be stressed enough. Kathleen's fun-to-read article mentions several products, including the free version of Zone Alarm that she picked (another free one is Agnitum's). Please see my newsletter this week for more tips and links that can keep ordeals like Kathleen's at bay.

Korea & Oz: Porn-blocking moves

The Korean government this week announced a passel of measures it will be taking to protect children and teens in cyberspace, the Korea Times reports. Some of those measures will be laws requiring ISPs to be "juvenile protectors" and regulating advertising; funding new filtering technology for the Web and P2P networks; monitoring "cyber communities, including those for suicide"; and designating "cyber clean schools" where cyberethics will be taught.

In Australia, the Labor Party is talking about tougher regulations to protect online kids, Australian IT reports. Under such regs, all ISPs "would be forced to block hard-core pornography reaching home computers.... A confidential paper from the left-wing think tank the Australia Institute, which is now being considered by the Opposition Leader's office, proposes that ISPs install compulsory filtering programs so only adults who can verify their age could view X-rated material." This activity follows the launch of Cleanfeed in the UK, filtering technology used by that country's largest ISP, BT, to block child porn from all of its household customers (see VNUNET). Fueling the debate over tougher measures in Oz was the release of a study there which found that "pornography is good for people," Australian IT reports in a separate article.

Class discussion by blog

Move over student gossip blogs and online diaries, make way for classroom blogs. Blogs are everywhere in the news these days, but this is new (to me, anyway): teachers' blogs for class discussion and announcements, which make total sense. For example, Mrs. Dudiak's second-grade class in Frederick County, Md., didn't have time for a full-blown class discussion on the previous day's field trip to a Native American farm, which was all her students wanted to talk about, so she had them "talk" about it in their classroom Web log, the New York Times reports. In other classroom blogs, many of which got started in the past school year, students "write about how they attacked a tough math problem, post observations about their science experiments or display their latest art projects."

NetNanny failed...

...a Wall Street Journal columnist's test of filtering software. After MSN and AOL's parental controls, tech columnist Walt Mossberg and his assistant Katie Boehret favored FilterLogix. "In our tests, CyberPatrol and FilterLogix did the best job of weeding out bad sites, though we preferred FilterLogix, because it required the least tweaking [they're smart - that's important to parents]. Net Nanny failed to block some blatantly inappropriate Web pages, so we can't recommend it." But they only looked at three filters (by installing them on three computers and trying "to call up as many revolting Web sites as possible"). Testing filtering software and services is a huge headache, probably one reason why Consumer Reports does it so seldom and even PC Magazine does it only annually. Net Family News doesn't have the resources to test software, but here are two new options that I've written about this year, including one specifically for families with high-speed connections. PC Magazine tested eight other products this summer, and its top pick was CyberSitter 9.0. For the tougher job of IM filtering, PC Magazine mentions SurfControl's product in an earlier article (most filtering products simply allow parents to turn instant messaging and file-sharing off altogether).

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Cell-phone scatter-brains

"We were celebrating summer freedom from school," writes a parent and psychology professor commenting in the Christian Science Monitor. "The kids rode waves for hours, skim-boarded on the beach, played football, and hiked the rock cliffs to watch the sunset. Another mom and I organized a cookout just after dark. What could be better? Well, apparently something could be. Our trip was constantly punctuated by outgoing cellphone calls. At all times, at least one of the 10 boys was on his cellphone.... The boys were calling friends elsewhere just to see 'what's happening'." It's happening in schools too. The New York Times calls it "gadget distraction" in an article about how teachers are dealing with kids' gadget multitasking in school, where creative teachers are fighting tech with tech (or distraction with distraction). For example, teacher-designed computer games, threats of reboots (students lose their work if they drift off into IM-ing), online work groups, stealth (classroom monitors walking around, looking at students' screens), network management (taking over kids' computers whenever needed), and creative seating configuration. But back on the beach, a thoughtful mom's observation about digital multitasking gives pause to fellow parents: "The appearance of obsessive busyness seems ironically linked to ultimate emptiness."

File-sharing milestone

Even kids - those who use Kazaa or BitStream, anyway - will be interested in this case. It pitted dozens of huge media companies against two small software companies (and the millions of file-sharers that use their services, Grokster and Morpheus). In a unanimous decision, a US federal court in California ruled Thursday that Grokster, Morpheus, and other P2P services, can't be held liable for the copyright violations of their users. The decision was similar to a milestone decision in 1984 that said VCR makers were not to be held liable for infringements of their customers. An appeal to the Supreme Court is likely, says the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which argued on behalf of the P2P defendants in the case. Here's the EFF's press release and here's MGM v. Grokster.

Update on MS's big PC patch

Families know that nothing's perfect in the world of PC security - meaning, the intrepid young Web surfers in our homes can download anything. Meanwhile, intrepid hackers of the malicious sort are constantly finding ways to hack into Microsoft software (because it has the lionshare of computer users). So it was inevitable that Microsoft's milestone security patch, SP2 (for "Service Pack 2"), would have flaws found in it about as soon as it was released. Here are the latest findings from a couple of sources: CNET reports that PC security researchers, having found flaws that hackers can exploit, have already notified Microsoft about them, and they expect to find more. Today's headline on Wall Street Journal techie Walt Mossberg's column has it that SP2 "has value but falls short." That's the upshot, it seems, no matter how many flaws are found: better to have it on your PC than not.

A parent's college-shopping

Michelle Slatalla is just fun to read, partly because she's a fellow parent, I guess, plus she's very down-to-earth and a great writer. In her Online Shopper column this week (in the New York Times), she's shopping for colleges for her daughter - early. "It started with one of those sinking feelings of parental panic. Mine occurred at a cocktail party, where the conversations made it clear that while I had been worrying about whether to thaw leftover chili or spaghetti sauce, savvier parents had been homing in on the strategies of SAT prep classes, math tutors and books that claimed to know the secrets of the 50 best small liberal arts colleges in America. As a parent of two teenagers, I don't need more panic. So what if my daughter won't graduate until 2007? I went home and started shopping online for a college." Michelle provides the URLs of some great sites for college (and university) Web research - with guides to everything from SAT-prep services to college counseling companies to financial aid.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Teens breaking up online

The Pew Internet & American Life project first chronicled teens breaking off relationships via IM back in 2001 (when the US had a mere 17 million Net users aged 12-17, and 17% of them had used IMs to ask someone out, 13% to break up with someone - see my 6/29/01 issue). Now there's advice for teens who've been rejected online (harder, they say, than a real-life rejection) and a rejection service,, Wired News reports. Trish McDermott, vice president of romance at, told the Christian Science Monitor last spring that 48% of online daters say they have experienced an email breakup. This might be a good family discussion topic. My kids aren't dating yet, but someday I'll ask them if they've gotten an impersonal, nonverbal rejection and, if so, how they've dealt with that. And we'll probably talk about the ethics of letting someone down without the courtesy of eye contact. It's an interesting new challenge that the Internet has presented both teens and parents.

Free iPods?!

Your kids may come to you starry-eyed about Don't worry - according to Wired News, it's not a scam, but rather a "customer acquisition" program. As Wired puts it, advertisers have discovered "it's more effective to spend $50 million on gifts than to blow
the cash on TV ads." In this case, people get free iPod minis for choosing and participating in one of 10 different free trials such as 45 days of AOL or 2 weeks of genealogy research at The company that sends out the iPods is Gratis Internet, which gets paid for sending potential customers to the likes of AOL, eBay, or RealNetworks. Gratis told Wired News that since it launched in June, it has shipped 2,500 of the little MP3 players.

Microsoft's big patch & family PCs

Since Microsoft's releasing SP2, its major PC security patch for Windows XP, today, many families might wonder, "Should we download it?" (Of course some of your PCs are set to download MS updates automatically, so you'll suddenly have it at some point.) The simplest answer seems to be yes, but there aren't really any simple answers in the world of computers. The Washington Post's tech columnist Rob Pegararo likens our PCs to a little country house (with window and door locks not working and a key under the doormat) transported to a very urban setting where security is suddenly an issue. Basically, we need this higher level of security. Fortunately, Rob thoroughly tested SP2 and concluded that it's "a must for XP users," including families. Here's the transcript of a helpful online discussion he had with household users all over the country who might have questions like yours and mine.

But you should also know that SP2 is not perfect. So far it has a number of conflicts with software that may already be on your system. CNET reported 47, though 40 mostly affect business users; seven affect games (your kids probably already know about them!). Here's a list from the Washington Post of software conflicts parents and kids may care about a lot: Zone Labs's Zone Alarm firewall, McAfee Virus Scan, Yahoo Messenger, Real Player, Kazaa, MusicMatch Jukebox, Microsoft Outlook 2002, and 2003 and Adobe's Photoshop Elements. Here's Microsoft's page devoted to these conflicts and its page on how to deal with them.

Summer spam: More porn

The amount of porn-touting spam in our in-boxes has risen 350% since June, The Register reports. That number's from email security company Clearswift. Porn spam requires special vigilance because - besides kids' exposure to inappropriate content - porn email is also "a popular carrier for malicious code." Just another reminder to kids and parents not to click on any links in these emails or download any attachments they carry. For balance, here's where porn, "a relatively small slice of the spam pie," lines up with other spam: "Financial spam accounts for 39% of the rubbish clogging our in-boxes," the Register adds, with healthcare a close second (30%). "Porn accounts for just under 5%."

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Blogs' downside

I'm showing my age and parental bias, but to me the story of 20-something x-rated blogger Jessica Cutler is a good example of how blogging with your friends can go very wrong. For Jessica, the Washington Post reports, having her blog found out by boyfriends and, eventually, clients on Capitol Hill was bad news (getting fired, losing a lover) and good news (a Playboy pictorial this fall and a six-figure book contract). But for the many teenagers who get publicly personal on their blogs but who don't mix it up with people in powerful places, blog "secrets" won't make them rich and may be discovered by future admissions directors, prospective employers, etc. Kids usually either don't think about the consequences of telling all in online journals/blogs or choose not to. The problem is, with the Internet, the consequences are often impossible to delete - ever. That's why I feel it's imperative that parents at least know if their children have online journals and maybe even know what's posted in them. It could lead to some valuable discussion on ethical online behavior and your family's values, as well as on protecting what people will be able to turn up about your children in search engines way into the future. For more on teen blogs, see "Daugher's blog, mom's dilemma", "Teens' blog life" in my 1/16 issue and "Understanding blogs" in my 2/7/03 issue. Don't miss the Post piece's fascinating comments about how the sexual revolution is looking these days - e.g., how "stripped of its feminist political ideology," it "has left legions of young women free but confused."

Monday, August 16, 2004

Tech appeal to young voters

The goal of Rock the Vote, MTV's non-partisan partner, is to get 20 million 18-to-24-year-olds to the polls this US presidential election year, and it figures technology can only help. First it reached people via mobile phones (see RTV Mobile and its Mobile Photo Blog, which covered the Democratic National Convention last month). Now it's IM. According to Wired News, RTV is using Rock the Vote-branded IM software that will allow users of the largest IM services (AIM, Yahoo, MSN) to communicate with each other. It's mobilizing "thousands of 'street team' volunteers" who will use "search tools built into the IM client to identify and add to their buddy lists young voters they've met at ... Rock the Vote events - concerts, college appearances, meet-ups and the like - who have also downloaded the client. Once that's done, the street team will engage those buddies in regular political discussions and encourage them to reach out to their own friends to talk politics as well." As an incentive, as Election Day approaches, RTV's celebrity partners will join in the IM discussions.

Student-eye-view of P2P

University students may be changing their downloading habits but not their mindsets, according to the California Aggie, news site of the University of California, Davis. One freshman stopped downloading at school for fear of repercussions but said she continues file-sharing at home; another student "said he downloads without regard for copyrights to 'stick it to the man'." Still, the number of "illegal downloading" cases in the 2002-'03 school year was 240, last year 94, possibly out of fear of recording industry (RIAA) lawsuits, possibly because of UC Davis's policy: "For a first offense, a student's Internet port [access] is shut off for up to a month. For a second offense, the port is shut down for the remainder of the year." University officials hope they'll never have to deal with a 3-time offender - they're "stuck between trying to protect student privacy and stopping illegal activities involving campus Internet services." Meanwhile, the Pew Internet & American Life project found that 14% of the 128 million American adults now online say they downloaded music at one time but no longer do so. About a third of these say the RIAA's tactics are the reason they stopped downloading music. Pew also surveyed musicians on file-sharing and found no clear consensus among them.