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Refuse To Be A Victim - Online Safety At Home:
By:  William P. Flinn

Lately there has been a lot in the news media about Internet predators.  In Colorado, for example, there have been numerous sting operations aimed at identifying and apprehending predators that seek to exploit children through online chat rooms.  There has been a lot of talk about what parents can or should be doing with regard to monitoring their children's Internet activitiesand keeping them safe.  The many sources out there have done a tremendous job at advising parents on how to speak with their children and keep them safe.  So, I don't want to turn this article into another parenting skills discussion, nor do I want to enter into the debate about freedom of speech or censorship.  Rather, I want to show you some of the ways you can use the technology at your disposal to make your own choices and help enforce appropriate Internet usage and behaviors. Let's face it, we can talk to our kids all we want, but they are going to do what they want in spite of us.  Sometimes we have to "gently" or even covertly enforce some of the do's and don'ts (more appropriately the don'ts) by using technology.

Enforce Internet Hours:

Much of what the experts will tell you about how to prevent your young children from venturing into dangerous waters on the Internet has to do with not allowing them to be up all hours of the night chatting.  Even if you have the family computer in a common area as suggested, how do you monitor usage if it is late and you are already in bed?  If you have broadband service, you can use your router to specify hours of operation.  Even if you have only one computer, you have probably heard me say over and over that you need to have one of these routers anyway - for the other security measures that they offer, such as firewall protection.  Now I am harping on you yet AGAIN to get one because the broadband router can also help you protect the people that use the computer, not just the data on the computer.  Most broadband routers allow you to set hours of operation for all or certain specified computers.  The computer will still work as it normally would - allowing your children to print, access files on another computer, do their homework.  Should they be up all hours of the night doing it is your concern, but at least the Internet access will be turned off.  If you have multiple computers, you can limit Internet hours to some, but not necessarily all.  Many times I am in my office late at night researching something (during a bout of insomnia) and need the Internet to be accessible.  But the kids can't use my computer from fear of death, or at least my strong password gets in the way :)


Sample Router Hours of Enforcement Settings
(Click for full-size view)

Use Parental Controls:

Just like the V-Chip on your television, your broadband router has the ability to help you sign up for and put parental controls in place.  You can specify and allow only content that is appropriate for your family, protecting them from questionable material and web sites that cater to a variety of offensive content from pornography to web sites that contain hidden malicious code.  These sites are also often used for phishing and other identity theft scams.  Much of what is being discussed as far as the dangers of online predators is the idea that children are often lured to seemingly innocent web sites or chat rooms, but are then exposed to all kinds of things that can lead to, among other things, identity theft - theirs and yours.  By signing up for the parental controls services, you can leverage the ability of the service by knowing that they are keeping their definitions up to date and monitoring for the many new dangerous sites that pop up so that you don't have to worry about constant upkeep.  You can also specify your own list of prohibited web sites using your router's built-in functions as well.


Sample Router Parental Controls
(Click for full-size view)


Sample Router Web Site Blocking Controls
(Click for full-size view)

Use Protection Software:

There are also a wide variety of software packages out there that will allow you to permit and restrict web sites that your children can visit.  NetNanny is one such product.  There are many others - the Internet Filter Review web site provides a wealth of info, as well as software comparisons.  Many of these types of software allow you to prevent access to suspicious web sites, monitor chat room and email activities, and even send you alerts of suspicious activities that are taking place.

Even the more sophisticated personal firewall software has the ability to restrict application access to the Internet.  ZoneAlarm, for example, has the ability to allow or disallow any application of your choosing access to the Internet.  If you feel your children's usage of their favorite chat program has gotten out of hand or is suspicious, simply turn off access, talk to them about it, and then come up with a strategy for safer usage.

For those of you who use Comcast broadband Internet service, McAfee Personal Firewall comes to you free of charge.  I use McAfee, although I have been a ZoneAlarm fan for many years - because it is free with my current service.  The McAfee product provides a very robust set of features to allow protect you and your system from harmful activities.


Sample Firewall Application Blocking
(Click for full-size view)

Upgrade to Windows Vista:

The parental controls features of Windows Vista allows parents to more tightly control what and when their children use the Internet.  Parents can set hours for computer use, set sites as off-limits or even limit browsing to only a few sites, and even monitor what sites their children are viewing.  Easy to confuse this with censorship, but we are talking about children, after all.  It is (in my humble opinion) the parent's job to keep children from things that will hurt them or bring liability for illegal activities onto the parents.  This allows for a more granular setting of computer restrictions.  The other thing I personally like about it is that the parental controls block what you specify, but give a reason why - letting the kids know that you are taking an active interest in their computer activities.

Parental Controls
Overview
Parental Controls
Setting Hours
Parental Controls
Internet Filter
Parental Controls
Blocked Login
Parental Controls
Blocked Website

Click on the images to see full size

A Low Tech Approach to Web Site Access Prevention:

 Within your computer is a low-tech way to prevent the computer from accessing questionable web sites called the HOSTS file.  When you type in a web site address or click on a link in your web browser, you have just told your computer you want to visit an address somewhere on the web.  We as humans can only think in terms of plain English names, like www.wflinn.com or www.google.com.  Our computers, however, only think of this in terms of addresses known as Internet Protocol (IP) addresses.  An IP address looks like the form 192.168.1.1.  For instance, what you know as www.wflinn.com is actually located at address  66.226.64.9. When you type in the plain English name, your computer has to do what is known as "name resolution" to find out what IP address you need to go to. The HOSTS file is a file that your computer looks to first to find out the IP address of a web site's location.  If it doesn't find a suitable address in the HOSTS file, it goes out to what is known as a Domain Name Services (DNS) server to get the address.  Therefore, if you put an entry into your HOSTS file to tell your computer the address of a specific site, it will look no further for the address.   The HOSTS file is always located on your computer in the C:\Windows\System32\drivers\etc folder.

So - you fake your computer out by telling it that the address of a questionable web site is 127.0.0.1. The address 127.0.0.1 is a special address - it is the loop-back address of your own computer.  Regardless of what address your Internet Service Provider assigns you, your computer's internal address is always 127.0.0.1.  When you tell the HOSTS file that the address of a questionable web site, such as www.badpornsite.com is actually 127.0.0.1, your web browser will try to go to that address, find out it is not a web server, and simply display the plain white "Page not found" error that you get when you try to go to a web site that doesn't exist.  I'm not necessarily trying to pick on MySpace, by the way - but they have been singled out lately as one of the most popular sources that many online predators look to for victims, so I have chosen to simply use it as an example if you wish to block it on your system.


Sample HOSTS File
(Click for full-size view)

This method, by the way, is an easy method for preventing all those annoying advertising pop-ups in your web browser.  There are many web sites where you can obtain entries to copy and paste into your HOSTS file - so you don't have to do the research to figure it out and type them all yourself.  The good news is that this method is easy, no cost, and works very well.  The bad news is that it must be updated, and if you r kids are computer savvy, they can can find this file and erase the entries to give them back access to web sites that you have blocked.

Wrapping it all up:

The Internet has exploded into a virtually unlimited resource for finding things and getting information.  Unfortunately, it has also brought out the worst in some people.  A recent news article made mention of the fact that most of these online predators wouldn't be able to carry out their abhorrent behaviors if not for having a computer and access to the Internet.  It was interesting when one young girl on the news article said that parents tell them not to talk to strangers and such - all things related to being safe outside the home.  But now, the Internet has brought certain dangers inside the home and can affect your whole family. 

There are many ways to protect your kids, from outright prohibition of certain things, to allowing access to everything, but helping them make wise choices.  As I said, I am not going to get into this whole debate about what is and isn't censorship and invasion of privacy - that's up to you as parents to decide for yourselves.  I will, however, tell you that you can use technology to help enforce your choices, and I encourage you to explore and use the various technologies at your disposal to do so.  Not only will you be ensuring more safety for your family, but you will be adding to your overall computer security posture as well.

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