Net nasties

Nobody can deny that there are many pornographic or undesirable sites on the Internet, nor can it be refuted that paedophiles do visit chat rooms in the hope of meeting young victims. These things have to be balanced against the overall picture of the Internet, which is a massive international community and knowledge resource such as the world has never before known. Its good far outweighs its bad.

Having said that, it should also be noted that children must be protected at all times while online - not only from the Net nasties but, as they get more familiar with cyberspace and their computer, from their own actions.

Many a parent is blissfully unaware of what damage their children can do online if left unsupervised. One classic example was the case of the Queensland parents who arrived home from a trip to find that while the babysitter's attention had been elsewhere, their young teenage son had been using hacking tools he had downloaded from the Internet to play havoc with other Net users' computers in Egypt and Canada. Parents not only have to protect their children from nasties on the Net, sometimes they have to protect the Net from their children. They must be able to monitor and, if necessary, filter, not only what comes in from the Internet but what goes out from their own computer.

However, the emphasis is on protecting younger children, particularly from the perils that lurk in parts of the Internet, and it is a misconception to believe the dangers lie solely with inappropriate or pornographic sites. The biggest danger lies where paedophiles can have direct contact with children through bulletin board and chat programs.

According to the FBI, sex offenders have contacted children over most of the major online services. The FBI says the most important factors in keeping your child safe online are the utilisation of appropriate blocking software and/or parental controls, along with having open, honest discussions with your child and monitoring their online activity.

The FBI has developed and published internationally accepted guidelines for protecting children online. It also played a role in the introduction of US legislation governing Web sites designed for children, under which any US-based site must be able to provide proof - other than e-mail - of having the written consent of a child's parent before they can allow a child to take part in many aspects of a site, including chat rooms.

Australia has yet to introduce similar legislation.

There is no doubt that there are individuals who will attempt to sexually exploit children through the use of the Internet. Some of them gradually seduce their targets by bestowing attention, affection, kindness and even gifts, and are often willing to devote considerable amounts of time, money and energy to the process. They listen to and empathise with the problems of children; they are aware of the latest music, hobbies and interests of children; and they will attempt gradually to lower children's inhibitions by slowly introducing sexual context and content into their conversations.

Others, however, immediately engage in sexually explicit conversation with children. Some offenders primarily collect and trade child pornographic images, while others seek face-to-face meetings with children through online contacts. Children can be indirectly victimised through conversations in chat programs as well as through the transfer of sexually explicit information and material.

The FBI warns that computer-sex offenders may also be evaluating children they come in contact with online for future face-to-face contact and direct victimisation.

There is no better protection than strict parental supervision; however, in today's busy world that it not always a practical solution. Thankfully, there are now some reasonably reliable software solutions that will help prevent kids from accessing the wrong material or unwittingly giving out personal information.

The biggest problem with any of these programs is that they face an impossible task - to block all undesirable material - and in their efforts to protect youngsters, many occasionally will block access to valuable sites.

There are four types of 'guardian' programs - online protection in which the filtering is done by the Internet Service Provider or by a protected Web site that requires special software to gain access; configurable filtering systems that reside on the user's computer, blocking specific incoming and outgoing data; monitoring systems that do not filter content but keep a record of the type of material viewed or downloaded; and complete suites that include filtering and monitoring facilities, a firewall to protect against hackers, and antivirus software.

ISP-based filtering services have met with a mixed response in Australia.

AOL provides parental controls so that family members have filtered Internet access according to their age group. One of the first things it does is to prevent younger children accessing chat channels. However, young teens often find it too restrictive, particularly when they are searching the Internet for information to help them with homework. AOL does attempt to assist by providing a filtered search engine, which does an excellent job in preventing accidental access to pornography sites, in particular.

However, Australian Internet users, while expressing concern about protecting children online, have also shown a reluctance to have their Net access filtered or monitored in any way.

When the country's largest ISP, Telstra's Big Pond, called for 2000 volunteers in Brisbane for a free trial of a filtering system called Internet Sheriff, it failed to raise sufficient interest.

Internet Sheriff is a filtering technology developed by Brisbane-based Tel.net Media and uses a dynamic real-time Internet content classification technology that identifies Web sites that fit certain categorisation criteria. It is backed up by a 'blacklist' of Web sites previously categorised as offending sites and, once filtering has been enabled, the user is denied access to those particular sites. If they go to a new, uncategorised Web site, key statistical data (such as particular words or graphics) is gathered about the site and compared with pre-set models; a match means the Web site is provisionally classified and blocked until it undergoes human review against a set of policies, when it can be unblocked, if necessary. The filtering software runs on the ISP's server and therefore does not require installation by the end user. It also contains elements of a firewall so it can be used by businesses as well.

KAHooTZ (www.kahootz.com.au) and Kidz.net (www.kidz.net.au) are both 'protected' Australian children's sites that are subscriber-based and require special software or special conditions to access.

KAHooTZ, which is backed by Hewlett-Packard and the Australian Children's Television Foundation, is designed to provide a safe haven on the Internet for young Net users. It provides access to a list of cached, approved Net sites but blocks access to the wider Internet. A monitored chat service is provided but it is restricted to KAHooTZ members. At this stage, it is not available to Macintosh users.

Kidz.net is restricted to Telstra's Big Pond Home subscribers who use a Windows 95- or 98-based PC. Children require a separate log-on and password to those used to access the Big Pond service, and, unless they have their parent's main Big Pond access details, they cannot surf the wider Internet; they are restricted to a collection of thousands of pre-selected 'safe' sites. Nor are they able to access e-mail or chat programs, which the administrators consider 'impossible to monitor'.

Despite the restrictions, there is plenty to do and see on both Kidz.net and KAHooTZ.

Personal software solutions such as Net Nanny have had better acceptance. Optus provides a free copy of the program to new Internet subscribers, but it is up to them to use it. Net Nanny not only monitors Internet activity, it keeps an eye on all the files on your PC and can be configured to prevent children accessing confidential data that is stored on your hard drive. It uses a combination of filtering methods ranging from pre-set lists of blocked sites to specific words and phrases that can be masked to prevent them appearing on screen. The company is constantly updating the blocked sites lists and updates can be downloaded from the Net Nanny site by anyone with a registered copy of the program.

Rather than just preventing children from accessing undesirable sites, they can be blocked from everything but approved sites or files. By default, Net Nanny will monitor word processing, browser and Internet Relay Chat programs. Its main selling point is that it is easily configurable and parents can set their own parameters. It does a good job of filtering most undesirable content and can be set to block both incoming and outgoing data, such as credit card numbers, e-mail addresses and other personal information.

At the other end of the scale, ComputerCOP is purely a monitoring program that will tell parents where their children have been and what they did online. It is the simplest of all of the 'guardian' programs to use and does not even have to be loaded because it can be run directly from the CD. While it will tell you what the kids have been doing, it will not stop them. That is left entirely to the parent, acting on the evidence provided by ComputerCOP.

Eye Guard offers another alternative: it blocks users from accessing pornographic images or movies from both the Internet and the PC, but does not block text. It uses a sophisticated image processing engine to identify offending images.

The program can be run in one of three modes - active, passive and stealth. In active mode the screen is password locked when a pornographic or naked image is displayed, and the time/date and user of the computer is logged with a thumbnail screenshot. In passive mode, the program does not block the screen, but logs the incident. The pro-gram's system tray icon is displayed, informing the user that the program is running. In stealth mode, the program performs as in passive mode, but the system tray icon is not displayed.

The most comprehensive package available - and at $162.50, the most expensive - is Norton Internet Security 2000 Family Edition. It combines the attributes of most of its competitors, including the same Web site list service as Net Nanny; a multiple access profile system for different family members; and configurable privacy safeguards that prevent unauthorised access to or sending of credit card, e-mail and other personal details, with a personal firewall to prevent hacker intrusion; blocking tools; and the respected Norton Antivirus program.

The parental control tools allow a parent to determine exactly what each member of the family can access online, providing each with a personal log-on to their access profile. Although a little more complex than Net Nanny, Norton provides the ultimate home protection, including 12 months of free updates for the antivirus, firewall and parental control software.

- Minimise the chances of online exploitation- Instruct your children- Software

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David Hellaby

PC World
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