Post in our forum for parents, teens - You! - at

Friday, July 15, 2005

What ID thieves actually do

USATODAY spent five months piecing together the process of how ID thieves exploit people's personal info online and off - how they recruit online "mules" to help them actually put those stolen identities, account numbers, etc. to use. "Mules serve two main functions," USATODAY reports: "They help keep goods flowing through a tightly run distribution system [by receiving gadgets and other products purchased with stolen credit card numbers and resending them overseas], and they insulate their employers from police detection." The article, which starts with the story of a one-time mule in California with the pseudonym of Karl, adds that last year "reshipping rings set up nearly 44,000 post office boxes and residential addresses in the USA as package-handling points, up from 5,000 in 2003. And they show no signs of slowing down." Here's a San Jose Mercury News column on recent congressional efforts to deal with ID theft and "Don't Let Data Theft Happen to You" in the New York Times. Further info and resources: the Washington Post on AOL's new data-protection services for subscribers; "Be a fierce guardian of your personal data" and the story of one who is; the FTC's Identity Theft Clearinghouse; and Be sure to enlist your online kids' help in protecting information on the family computer, including together making sure that nothing but media files are being shared if there are file-sharers at your house (see "File-sharing realities for families").

P2P software downloads unabated

Downloads of the noncommercial, open-source variety, at least. "Millions of people *a week* [emphasis mine] are downloading and using those independent [file-sharing] programs" like Azureus (a BitTorrent application that also runs on Macs) and Shareaza, reports CNET in an article today that surveys the scene since the US Supreme Court's MGM V. Grokster decision last month. "Azureus has been downloaded more than 78 million times, and more than 2.4 million times in the last week alone," CNET says. Meanwhile, commercial providers like LimeWire and MetaMachine (which markets eDonkey) are taking a hard look at their businesses.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Important Firefox & Mac updates

Anyone who has a Mac or uses the Firefox Web browser should get the latest updates available for both, the Washington Post's security blog reports. Writer Brian Krebs says the Firefox update fixes "at least a dozen serious flaws," and the update for Macs is "huge," including iTunes, iPhoto, iPod, and Mac OSX improvements "detailed in several pages worth of documented changes that I won't begin to list." Brian does detail how to get the updates.

Toward better content rating

The Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) has a new system that makes it more convenient for Web publishers to indicate whether or not their sites are appropriate for children, VNUNET reports. Using technology developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, the system allows, for example, "clearer differentiation between medical and pornography sites and includes shortcuts to generate labels for pornography and gambling sites." The development is good for online families because 1) more Web sites are likely to be labeled (so, for example, porn can be detected and blocked by filters), 2) new parts of the Internet (such as blogs and RSS feeds) will be covered, and 3) the RDF technology in ICRA's system takes content rating into the future - it "forms a significant part of the Semantic Web being developed by [Web creator] Tim Berners-Lee." [RDF stands for "Resource Description Framework".] Here's ICRA's press release and more at

Grand Theft Auto's X-rated content?

I put a question mark by that headline, because there's a discussion in the tech media about whether the sexually explicit material was in the "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" videogame to begin with (and "unlocked" with a "modder's" code that's circulating around the Net) or created by the modder. In any case, the US's game ratings body, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, is looking into whether it should change its "M" (17+) rating of the game to "AO" for Adults Only.

A Dutch fan of the game, Patrick Wildenborg, "unlocked mini-games in the PC version of San Andreas that allows players to make game characters perform sexually explicit acts," the BBC reports. The Boston Globe explains that Wildenborg is a "modder," a gamer who uses software tools to modify the look and feel of his favorite games." Gamemakers like modders because they tend to increase games' popularity and shelf life and often add tools to the games which make it easier to create modifications. "Inevitably," according to the Globe, "some modders have reprogrammed popular games to add explicit sexual content. The popular game The Sims has inspired some steamy mods.... But 'Hot Coffee,' an eye-popping [Grand Theft Auto] mod created by Wildenborg and some of his friends, goes a good deal further, with highly explicit images." Wildenborg claims that a million people have downloaded "Hot Coffee" since it was posted on the Internet a month ago. Here's the New York Times on this, and the latest from CNET. [Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is No. 2 on the latest "10 worst videogames" list - see my 11/26/04 issue.]

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Get the new patches!

If you haven't yet upgraded the family PC to Microsoft Update - which patches Windows and other Microsoft software automatically - go to to get the two critical patches all family PC owners need. They fix two security flaws that are already being actively exploited by malicious hackers hijacking people's computers, CNET reports. They're using the flaws to download Trojan software onto computers that they can then control. The hackers add these infected PCs to "zombie networks" that they use to make money or launch denial-of-service attacks on large Web sites such as governments'. A separate CNET report has numbers showing that computer hijacking's way up so far this year. Here are Microsoft's instructions on how to turn on automatic security updates. For further help, see my "Fending of zombie-dom" and "What if our PC's a zombie?".

'Web-proofing your kids'

I wished I had the numbers in front of me when CBS tech correspondent and publisher Larry Magid interviewed me about a University of New Hampshire study on online exploitation of kids, but here's the piece with the numbers. And here's Larry's article today on smart parenting of online kids during the summer, when they have a lot more time on their hands. Parents of younger teens especially would benefit from some key misconceptions about "stranger danger" that the UNH Crimes Against Children Research Center clears up in this study (if you read nothing else, see just the first paragraph of "Net-related crimes against kids"). This was a survey of law-enforcement agencies nationwide. The Center will be issuing its second milestone survey of online kids themselves, "Youth Internet Safety Survey," in a few months, Janis Wolak, one of its authors, tells me. The first, quoted globally to have found that one in five online kids in the US had been sexually solicited online, was published in June 2000. It'll be very interesting to see what in the online experiences of tweens and teens has changed.

'Push' for Net music fans

Have your kids installed this software yet? Maybe if they're music fans. The Los Angeles Times describes two programs, Indy and iRate, which are like the music version of the PointCast-style "push" technology of the '90s and could be huge for garage bands. What's improved since that ancient "dark age" is faster Net connections and "more powerful technology for tailoring programs to the audience." How it works: The software downloads to your computer "a number of songs that artists have agreed to distribute for free online. Each time the programs run, they download more songs for users to play and rate on a scale from one to five stars." The really interesting part is "collaborative filtering," which is more about humans than technology but uses both. "The ratings help the software match each user to others who have parallel likes and dislikes. Once a match has been made, the software sends people songs that others with similar tastes have rated highly." Indy is a noncommercial project whose goal is not to compete with, say, iTunes, but to help people discover new music. The software, at, "is like a radio that takes no requests." Check out the L.A. Times article to see what that means. [Tip for parents: Ask your kid(s) if the computer can handle all the music being downloaded. Maybe they'd like to try this *instead* of file-sharing? It's more reliably legal.]

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Phone use & driving don't mix

This story was in headlines everywhere this morning, but the teenagers in our lives need to hear it too: Drivers are four times more likely to crash when talking on cellphones. That's "four times as likely to get into a crash that can cause injuries serious enough to send them to the hospital," the Associated Press reports, *and* it includes drivers using headsets, talking hands-free, the BBC reports. The findings were in a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety published in the British Medical Journal. Some California legislators are proposing banning mobile phone use by young "provisional drivers," the Los Angeles Times reports, leading with the story of a 17-year-old who died in a crash caused by speeding while talking on the phone (she also was not wearing a seatbelt). "Legislators in California and a growing number of other states say something has to be done to curtail such tragedies," according to the Times. "The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the number of US motor-vehicle fatalities involving 16-to-20-year-olds rose to 7,405 last year, up from 7,353 the previous year."

High school ditches textbooks

Though in eliminating textbooks from its classrooms, the Vail, Ariz., high school's goal isn't to teach students that all the information they need is online or at least on computers. Instead, the district's superintendent says, the move "gets teachers away from the habit of simply marching through a textbook each year," the Associated Press reports. Vail High School will be "the state's first all-wireless, all-laptop public school this fall."

Blogging's risks

High school and college yearbooks would be cherished and/or laughed over for a few weeks or months, then be revisited occasionally years later, but mainly just gathered dust in some basement or attic. They allowed us all to move on and mature. Blogs and Web sites where similarly personal thoughts are entered *and* expanded on, on the other hand, might be archived and available to anyone googling our names for years to come. On the Web, personal thoughts take on a life of their own that, usually, we can no longer control. These publicized personal thoughts can affect children's academic and professional careers, not to mention their parents'. Take for example Maya Marcel-Keyes, daughter of conservative politician Alan Keyes, who at 19 "discovered the trickiness of providing personal details online when her discussions on her blog about being a lesbian became an issue during her father's recent run for a US Senate seat in Illinois (he made anti-gay statements during the campaign)," the Associated Press reports. Nearly a fifth of teens with Net access have their own blogs; "38% of teens say they read other people's blogs"; and "79% of teens agreed that people their age aren't careful enough when giving out information about themselves online," the AP cites Pew Internet & American Life research as finding. Probably, more and more will use blogging services' privacy features like's "friends lock" so the public at large can't get to their innermost thoughts! But meanwhile, until their inner "risk analyst" chimes in (with post-teen frontal lobe development), their parents can promote those privacy features (the AP cites one uncle who heard his niece, a college student, was looking for a job; after googling her and finding her blog, "The Drunken Musings of...," he wrote her to suggest she take it down).

Monday, July 11, 2005

Teen worm writer convicted

The teenage writer of the 2004 Sasser worm has been found guilty by a German court this but given a suspended sentence because he was (barely) a minor when he wrote it, VNUNET reports. Sven Jaschan "was caught following a tip-off to police after Microsoft offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the worm's creator." He testified that he'd intended to "create a virus that would combat the Mydoom and Bagle viruses and remove them from infected computers. This led him to develop the Netsky virus further, and to modify it to create Sasser." The worm accounted for 70% of all infections during the first half of 2004, according to VNUNET. New York Times columnist John Tierney muses about what Sven's sentence really *should* have been - e.g., make him "spend 16 hours a day fielding help-desk inquiries in an AOL chat room for computer novices. Force him to do this with a user name at least as uncool as KoolDude and to work on a vintage IBM PC with a 2400-baud dial-up connection." ;-)