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Friday, September 17, 2004

Possible P2P policies

Here are two ways to go for musically minded families (customize away!): 1) Allow use of a service like Kazaa or BitTorrent to find and download legal music (decide whether to allow or disable file-sharing. Possible rules: Keep it legal; try to download only music; have an anti-spyware app installed and scan and delete spyware at least weekly; tell us if you happen to download anything strange. Risk: that kids will accidentally download porn and viruses. 2. Don't allow file-sharing services like Kazaa, Limewire, or Blubster; develop a list of free-and-legal music download sites; and set a family budget for downloading at pay-per-tune sites like iTunes, MSN Music, or Napster. Allow a service like for file-sharing among friends. Of course, these are just a couple of general directions families can take - let me know what's working for you (or which way you're leaning). For more on all this, see today's issue of my newsletter.

Legal sharing

If your child says s/he really wants to be able to share music with friends, and that's the whole reason for having Kazaa, BitTorrent, or Blubster on the family PC, there are wholly legal alternatives. One of the newest of these is Grouper, described in The Register. It allows you to share music, but just among a group of friends you sign up, and group members are streaming each other's music, which means you're listening to the music on the other's guy's hard drive, not even downloading it. Some kids might object to this because they then can't copy it to their MP3 player or burn it onto a CD, but maybe we can't have everything? And there's always iTunes, Napster, and other pay-per-tune sites - or the legal-but-free-music sites Jon lists above - for copying and burning. If you want to block file-sharing altogether, there's software for that now. A product called Blockster is now in beta and can be tested for free. For other such P2P-detection-and-blocking software, here are the results of a Google search for "block file-sharing." For more on all this, see today's issue of my newsletter.

Legal downloads

Kid file-sharing is problematic for parents, there's no doubt about it. Even if our kids have figured out how to avoid the viruses, spyware, and porn readily available on the P2P networks (see "File-sharing realities"), there's the ever-present issue of illegal music. Fortunately, Jon Pareles of the New York Times clears up the legal question for us: "Downloading music from the Internet is not illegal," he writes, despite the message we're getting from the RIAA and its thousands of lawsuits against file-sharers. What is illegal, as found in "the fine print of those lawsuits," Jon writes, is "unauthorized distribution: leaving music in a shared folder for other peer-to-peer users to take." What's also great about this article is that Jon goes on to list nearly three dozen sites offering free, unqualifiedly legal music - from musicians' own sites to collections of classical, reggae, alternative, Iraqi, Asian, Brazilian, folk, and electronic music, to name a handful. There's so much wonderful, completely legal music for all tastes out there on the Web. For more on all this, see today's issue of my newsletter.

Watch out: Virus war

Somebody's going to make a movie of this. Virus writer Sven Jaschan caught by police. Admits to creating the Sasser worm that sweeps the world's computers. Exulting in his demise, arch-rival malicious hackers "using their favourite calling card - a tenacious computer virus dubbed MyDoom - "send out a new plague called MyDoom.Y with an attachment bearing a picture of Jaschan "to mock their vanquished foe," as Reuters described their exploit. Of course, the nameless, faceless victims of all this hacker hubris are us. So keep that anti-virus software humming (actually, just make sure it's installed and heed every update if it's not automatic). Here's CNET on the new MyDoom making the rounds.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Fending off zombie-dom

You've heard it here before, and it sounds like something from the Twilight Zone: Your family PC could be a zombie, part of a network of zombies controlled by hackers with a profit motive. And there are layers of them, from the virus and worm writers who take over the PCs and rent out the resulting zombie networks to the scammers who manipulate them, USAToday reports. "Phishing" - tricking people into clicking to a bogus bank site and providing the scammers with user name, password, and bank account - has become big business, as phishers skim small amounts from a large number of bank accounts, undetected. How has it come to this? Simple: "The vast majority [of PC owners] don't use firewall software to block intruders, patch vulnerabilities, or keep anti-virus subscriptions current." Those are the three cardinal rules for PC security. Other tips from a USAToday sidebar are: distrust all email attachments, including those posing as PC security patches ("no software vendor will ever send you patches via email"); back up all your important documents and folders at least once a month (see my 8/27 issue); "use complex passwords and periodically change them and your PINs; beware of spyware (download a free anti-spyware program like Ad-Aware or Spybot); and consider switching to a browser other than Internet Explorer (see the sidebar for more on this).

The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg offers a clear, more radical approach in "How to Protect Yourself from Vandals, Viruses If You Use Windows." See also "What if our PC's a Zombie?" in my 7/16 issue.

Dorm thievery countermeasures

A multimillion-dollar industry has developed around keeping university students' tech gear in their dormitory rooms, USAToday reports. "Students can cart $3,000 or more in gear to campus just by toting their laptops, digital cameras, MP3 players, PDAs and DVD players," all of which are very portable. What's being done? Everything from those credit-card-style room keys hotels use to special safes and steel footlockers.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Get the patch - again

Even if you actually downloaded Microsoft's recent mother-of-all-patches, Service Pack 2 (SP2), experts say we really need to go to the Windows Update page for this one too, the Associated Press reports. Especially if we're among the some 200 million owners of Windows XP computers. Microsoft says an attacker could use the flaw this patches to install viruses or take control of XP PCs, that this can happen if people simple go to a Web page that has a specially doctored photo on it, or read an email message with such an image in it. The security flaw could also be in dozens of other Microsoft programs on your machine, which is why MS wants us to go to its update page to have our systems scanned for it.

And did you hear about the talking worm? Fortunately, PC security experts are calling it low-risk, but it really does talk. According to CNET, the worm "uses the Windows Embedded Speech Engine" to play a friendly little message in English (from a guy who says he's Turkish) after the Windows XP boot-up music has played. It "also deletes certain files, causing Windows to fail. It spreads automatically via an e-mail titled "Listen and Smile," and alters home page settings in Internet Explorer." The anti-virus software I'm sure you have installed will take care of this one.

More girl game makers (pls?)

It's a perennial topic because, you'd never know it, but girls and women represent 43% of the $10 billion industry's customers. (The 43% figure comes from Greg Palmer, producer of PBS's "The Video Game Revolution"; the $10b figure is from USAToday.) But the anecdotal evidence just doesn't stack up. To wit: USAToday's piece led with Jennifer Canada's experience at Southern Methodist University. She is one of two women among the 100 students enrolled in SMU's Guildhall school of video game making. And women represent 10% of game developers. But there's hope, at least at SMU. "Guildhall has partnered with the online female job recruiting Web site and the game review Web site to create what's believed to be the first video game scholarship for women in the nation," according to USAToday. "The scholarship will provide about $18,500, or half the cost of an 18-month certification program." Maybe this will eventually mean a lower percentage of first-person-shooter games - or more "thought-provoking, story-driven games with more female lead characters and less carnage." For reviews of games girls like, see also

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Digital cheating

What's the academic world coming to? "In January 2003, the University of Maryland ... failed a group of accounting students for using cellphones to receive text-message answers during a test. In England last summer, proctors caught 254 secondary-school students illicitly using cellphones during tests," the Wall Street Journal reports. The article also cites Chinese students facing criminal charges of stealing state secrets because they were texting answers to a national college-entrance exam and other cheaters in Ireland, South Korea, New Zealand, and Canada. So schools are considering countermeasures - technologies that disable the camera function on cellphones, automatically reroute incoming calls to voicemail and block outgoing calls, or detect calls within a 90-foot area and sound an alarm. Few schools are actually testing these technologies, the Journal says, but they know about them and some are considering using them as deterrents. Besides, some schools believe "low-tech cheating schemes, which can be combated only with astute proctors, remain a bigger problem." Pathetic examples of the low-tech variety: Test takers carving exam answers into pencils or lining up M&Ms on a desk color-coded for multiple-choice questions. For more on this, see "Net-enhanced plagiarism" and "Teachers & Net plagiarism."

Tablet PCs in school

They're basically laptops you write on, like a notepad, and they're gaining ground in US schools. "Educators at a handful of schools, many of them private high schools, are pressing ahead with plans to issue students tablet PC's for use in English, foreign language, math, science and social studies classes, the New York Times reports. Two obstacles they faced were price (that's coming down) and handwriting recognition (that has improved with Microsoft's update of the Windows XP Tablet PC operating system, according to the Times). Teachers apparently like the collaboration tablet PCs allow. In one math class, "a teacher could write out an equation in a shared workspace that is displayed on the classroom's [electronic] whiteboard, and students seated at their desks can use their tablet pens to take turns adding steps to it." The teacher told the Times it was like having 20 kids at a blackboard, chalk in hand. Teachers can also see how students are progressing on a pop quiz, as they're taking it, cut down on after-school (and in-school) paperwork, and catch any instant messages being circulated during classtime (uh oh, I can see paper coming back in fashion for classroom socializing!).

Monday, September 13, 2004

Chicago schools: E-rate struggles

Remember the e-rate? It was big news back in the late-'90s, as US schools and libraries gratefully scrambled to apply for the federal program that helped them with Internet access (funds came from adding a tax to consumers' phone bills). The bulk of e-rate news more recently has been about corruption concerns. It's interesting that the first place I find an e-rate update this month is out of the UK. The Register reports that Chicago schools that turned to the e-rate program "have suffered through a string of bureaucratic blunders, politically tainted contracts and overall incompetence," and many of the city's poorest schools remain without Internet access at all. The Register is covering investigative reporting done by the Chicago Tribune, which found, among other things, that "Chicago has received a stunning total of $389 million from E-rate but may have to give up $50 million of that total as a result of failing to meet federal deadlines to spend the cash."

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Penn. child-porn law thrown out

A US federal court Friday threw out a Pennsylvania law requiring Internet service providers to block access to online pornography, calling the law unconstitutional, the Associated Press reports. "No one challenged the state's right to stop child porn, which is already illegal under federal law," but civil liberties organizations such as the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had challenged the law because they said that for two years after it was passed, ISPs "trying to obey blocking orders were forced to cut access to at least 1.5 million legal Web sites that had nothing to do with child pornography or even legal pornography, but shared Internet addresses with the offending sites." The law also made ISPs liable for content being served from a computer in another country and violated interstate commerce rules established by the Constitution, the court found, according to the New York Times's coverage. "Judge Jan E. Dubois was ultimately persuaded that given the current state of technology 'the Act cannot be implemented without excessive blocking of innocent speech in violation of the First Amendment'." The Pennsylvania law was the only one of its kind in the US, and a lot of state governments were interested in its fate. As of this writing, the state attorney general's office had not said if it would appeal the decision.