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Friday, May 28, 2004

File-sharing realities for families

There's no question about it: file-sharing comes with risks. Beyond the lawsuits (the RIAA this week announced its latest round of nearly 500, bringing the total to about 3,000 sued among the 100 million+ file-swappers worldwide, Reuters reports)...

Here are the risks the average family is more likely to encounter:

  • Porn. The P2P services allow for sharing photos and videos, as well as music and text docs. Some of those images are pornography, including illegal child pornography. A study done in the US a year ago found that porn is being widely shared on these networks - even more than music on one called Gnutella (see Slyck's Guide to Gnutella), and kids can download porn by mistake because it's often not labeled as such.
  • Viruses. Unless properly protected with a firewall, anti-virus measures, and the latest security patches, file-sharers' PCs are vulnerable to the worms and viruses on other machines on the P2P networks.
  • Privacy. There are two very common risks in this category: 1) People are making a lot more than music available on their home PCs. The P2P services don't do a good job of telling users that they have to be careful about what folders on their hard drive they open up to the file-sharing public. Emails, medical records, and family financial information have inadvertently been shared on P2P networks, so - if used - the software needs to be configured carefully. The P2P services are also known to have a lot of spyware on them.

    A family discussion about file-sharing could touch on: these risks, what P2P software people are using (here's one list of 54 titles), a kid's demo of how the software was configured, and what rules everybody should agree on. For more on family file-sharing (including the latest news and resources), see this week's issue of SafeKids/NetFamilyNews), and for one dad's views on kids' file-sharing, see "A tech-literate dad on file-sharing."
  • Thursday, May 27, 2004

    Google, Jeeves, Yahoo: How are they doing?

    Even though most people use Google these days, its search results aren't much different from what you get at other search engines, a study found. The study, conducted by San Mateo, Calif.-based market research firm Vividence, surveyed and monitored 2,000 people as they used Google, Ask Jeeves, Lycos, Microsoft's MSN, and Yahoo, CNET reports. It found, for example, that in a search for the leading cause of death for people between 25 and 34, Google users found what they were looking for 55% of the time and people using its competitors reported success rates of between 52% and 54%. "The company found that Google clearly remains consumers' favorite, largely because of the search engine's less-cluttered interface. In fact, Vividence said almost 90% of Google users reported having a 'strongly positive experience'." Those figures were 68% at Yahoo, 50% at Ask Jeeves, 48% for Lycos, and 41% for MSN. And why do we need to know this? Well, Wellesley College found in a study last year that fewer than 2% of students surveyed used non-Internet sources in research they were asked to do. The study "also revealed the extraordinary confidence students have in search engines," its authors, two Wellesley professors said. For more on this, see "Critical thinking: Kids' best research (and online-safety) tool" in my 5/30/03 issue.

    Wednesday, May 26, 2004

    It's elementary, my dear parents

    Kindergarteners and first-graders are now using technology to design things the way graphic designers, businesspeople, and scientists do,
    USA TODAY reports in an article about small technophiles in Arizona. In one class in Tempe, first-graders "learn terms used in geometry by first shooting everyday shapes in the classroom and playground with digital cameras, then loading the pictures in PowerPoint presentations. It's vocabulary without boring flash cards." In Phoenix and Glendale, first-graders are designing PowerPoint presentations and digital greeting cards. As one school administrator put it, "in the land of technology, students are the natives and adults are the immigrants." But we parents knew that! ;-)

    Mac patch flawed

    I mentioned earlier this week that Apple had issued an unusual patch to fix Mac security problems that have come up recently. Well, CNET cites security experts at several different companies as saying it "failed to fix the underlying problem." And that security problem allows a hacker to upload and run a malicious program on a Mac - if the owner can be "enticed to go to a fake Web page on which the program has been placed." Tell the kids not to click on links in emails from people they don't know!

    Porn spam still not labeled

    Parents are probably among the most aware of this: The law hasn't made it one bit harder for kids to stumble on porn spam, CNET reports. The people who send out those millions of pornographic emails apparently are ignoring a new FTC rule requiring porn emails to be labeled as such (under the US's CAN-SPAM Act of December '03). "Not only did illegal sexually-explicit spam fail to slow down after the regulations took effect May 19, but pornographic email measured by one antispam company jumped from around 2 million messages in a 40-hour period last week to around 2.5 million during the same period this week." Meanwhile, the BBC reports that spam of all sorts now accounts for about 70% of email worldwide. The good news in this report is that financial spam is up and porn down in terms of subject matter. "Junk mail offering stock price tips, cheap loans and mortgages accounts for nearly 38% of all spam, while pornography accounts for just 5%." Viagra-type drugs, miracle diets, hair restorers, and other "health-related" subjects make up 40% of all junk email.

    As for remedies, here's a dense piece for the very interested at CNET about progress in technical efforts to beat spam and spam scams. And the FBI is cracking down. It recently told Congress that it has identified more than 100 "significant spammers" and is targeting the worst 50 for "potential prosecution later this year," CNET also reports.

    Tuesday, May 25, 2004

    'Drugs' in online games

    Besides the more typical threats of getting eaten by monsters or murdered by fellow avatars, a new one is turning up in multiplayer games on the Web, Wired News reports: "addictive drugs that can incapacitate or kill their characters." For example, the creators of Achaea, "one of the biggest online text-based games," have introduced the highly addictive "gleam" into its story about a crime ring trying to infiltrate the game's cities. "Characters who take gleam get hooked quickly - suffering typical addiction symptoms: violent vomiting, shivering, irrational sobbing, begging for the drug and even overdoses resulting in death," according to Wired News, which adds that "some of the game's players are angry about gleam's introduction into their world." This answers a question many parents would ask - how the drugs' effects are portrayed in these games? "Realistically" is probably a good answer. If young players see painful reactions and tragic results, this plot twist might be persuasive in a positive way. But email me your views - or post them just below where it says "comments."

    Unusual security patch from Apple

    Updates, or security patches, have been key to family PC security for a long time, but not for Mac owners. Until now. This patch for Macs is worth getting, Apple fans - the company recommends it. "The update fixes a pair of flaws that could be used to create a virus that spreads through a Web link sent via e-mail messages," CNET reports, adding the view of a computer security company that the patch is "extremely critical" because of all the hacker instructions for exploiting the flaws that have appeared in online discussions.

    Monday, May 24, 2004

    Teenagers tell it best

    "Sandra," a 16-year-old in the UK, tells her own story at CBBC (BBC for kids) of how she and a friend almost met at McDonald's with a "19-year-old" man they'd gotten to know in a chatrrom. Because it was just a lark, and the two girls were together, they felt bold and agreed to meet with the man the minute he suggested it - after an hour a day of chatting over several days. It turned out there were two men waiting at McDonald's, both looking more like 40-somethings than teenagers, but the girls were smart and... I'll let Sandra tell the rest here. An American girl's experience that didn't have as happy an ending is "Amy's Story," told in audio rather than written form, in the Teens section of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's NetSmartz site. These stories beg some questions that the (for young teens) answers - e.g., how you see people online and how they see you, how to set boundaries, how people manipulate others in chat or instant-messaging, etc. (see "World Wide Weirdos" and the ASL Files in the section of the site). For parents, there's some level-headed advice on instant-messaging from a father of six in the 1/9 issue of my newsletter.