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Friday, July 02, 2004

New family PC risk: Web sites!

As if family computer use wasn't enough of a minefield already, two new risks have recently emerged - ones that kids can easily encounter. This week we'll look at the first one: Web sites! (Next week: multiplayer games.)

These are Web sites that put malicious code or spyware on the PCs of average surfers who simply click to them. At least one professional techie was telling his family late last week simply not to use the Web unless they absolutely had to, the Washington Post reported, referring to the "world wide minefield" some malicious hackers in Russia had temporarily turned the Web into. The good news is two-fold: 1) the server the hackers were operating was shut down, and 2) their exploit alerted a whole lot of us to a new PC security risk: hijacked Web sites that can send our computers code that allows its writers to take control of them (and make money by using our PCs to spam other people!).

Another example last week, also linked to organized crime, experts said, was pop-up ads that upload password-stealing spyware on people's PCs when they go to banking sites such as PayPal, USBank, and 40+ others (see Australian IT).

These exploits aren't particularly new, but over the past two weeks have affected a lot more people, which on the positive side means a whole lot more people have become aware of them and are alerting their families and taking precautions (click here for solutions).

Thursday, July 01, 2004

'Camera phone backlash' already

To teens who snap and email on-the-fly photos of themselves and friends, they're just fun. But concerns about everything from children's privacy to industrial espionage are now being raised wherever "phone snappers" flock, and they're certainly not just kids. "Worldwide, more camera phones were sold last year than digital cameras - a first," the BBC reports, adding that "sales went up almost five-fold from 2002 to 84 million. In some countries, almost every model sold has a built-in camera." In Japan people can even distinguish among the postures of phone snappers, talkers, gamers, and texters (it's now almost impossible to take a sneaky photo there without people noticing). Schools, strip joints, health clubs, and corporations in many countries are banning camera phones from their premises. They're entirely banned in Saudi Arabia and frowned upon in other Mideastern countries, according to the BBC. "In the US, lawmakers are considering a bill banning so-called up-skirt photos and other forms of voyeurism." The Italian government's media watchdog has issued guidelines for camera phone use.

COPA counterpoint

For anyone interested in more than the Supreme Court justices' thinking on protecting kids from online porn (and the Child Online Protection Act they just sent back again to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia for deliberation, this time on how filtering tech has improved since the Philadelphia court blocked the new law's enforcment in early '99), the Washington Post this week held chats between the public and very articulate representatives of the debate's two sides: Ann Beeson, associate litigation director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women for America (these are the chat event transcripts). Further great perspective: the Post's cogent editorial on this week's decision.

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Cyberbullying on the rise in Oz

A 9-year-old girl receiving porn on her cell phone, a 12-year-old being text-stalked (harassed via text messages) on his. Of course, cyberbullying also happens in chat, IM, and email. What has become fairly common in the UK - especially via cell phones - is now hitting radar screens in Australia. "A 2002 UK study found that one in four children has been bullied by computer or cell phone," Australian IT reports. The problem is, this virtual type of bullying is even less apparent to adults than "traditional" bullying is. "A parent can't always monitor their child on the computer or phone." The Australian IT article is a good overview of the problem and of steps being taken in that country. See too a feature in the SafeKids/NetFamilyNewsletter last February and the premier cyberbullying info site: Bill Belsey's

Brits tackle Net plagiarism

Some 25% of undergraduates had plagiarized using the Internet, according to an unnamed survey cited by the BBC. And that's a conservative figure, one university student is quoted as saying. So Northumbria University's Plagiarism Advisory Service is testing a plagiarism detection system that scans students' work against 4.5 billion Web pages. The candid student makes a good point about the need to use this type of software in school: Only recently have students been taught how to reference Web content properly in research papers. Students also deserve to know how limited the public Web actually is for source material and how to determine the value of the material they find on it. For more on this see "Librarians: Better than Google" in last week's newsletter and "Critical thinking: Kids' best research tool" in our 5/30/03 issue.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Still undecided on COPA

The Child Online Protection Act (COPA) has enormous spring to it. It just bounced back to a federal appeals court in Philadelphia from the Supreme Court for the third time, with the US's highest court deciding 5-4 that "a law meant to punish pornographers who peddle dirty pictures to Web-surfing kids is probably an unconstitutional muzzle on free speech," as the Associated Press put it. The justices didn't actually strike down the law; they told the lower court to see if technology (such as filtering) hasn't improved enough since the law was first passed in 1998 to take care of the child-protection problem without a law having to intervene (this will be the third time the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has considered COPA). The Supreme Court justices know that filtering is flawed, but even more flawed, the majority opinion held, is a law that jeopardizes First Amendment rights. In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said COPA is indeed constitutional and "would be less restrictive than filters and other alternatives," the New York Times reports, quoting Justice Breyer: "That matters in a world where the obscene and the nonobscene do not come tied neatly into separate, easily distinguishable, packages."

It's important for the courts to get the final decision on COPA right, whatever "right" means in this ongoing, unprecedented clash between free speech and children's rights, because it could establish the framework for future regulation of cyberspace. Here's further coverage at CNET, the BBC, and, on earlier COPA milestones, at Here is the syllabus of the Supreme Court's decision today.

Monday, June 28, 2004

Game includes virtual rape

There is nothing to stop a child from visiting the new adult-only, online role-playing game Sociolotron but this on its entry page: "By entering the site you declare that: 1) You are 21 years of age or older; 2) It is legal for you to read about interactive erotic role playing involving erotic text and erotic images; 3) You are not offended by reading about a highly politically incorrect form of roleplaying; and 4) have read and understood the Legal Terms and Conditions and you agree to all of these terms and that all statements made in the terms about visitors of our site and customers of the Sociolotron game are true for you." Then they click on "The above is true for me. Let me in" and they're there, joining others living out their "darkest fetish fantasies" or joining a cult, the source of whose "magic rituals" is "among the darkest and most depraved secrets of the world."

Players of EverQuest, Ultima Online, etc. may be tempted to move on to Sociolotron because, according to Wired News, it has monster battles and other fantasy fare like that of many multiplayer games, in addition to sexual fantasy. The game begs big questions, such as whether this type of role-playing legitimizes rape in impressionable minds, along the lines of pedophiles' practice of exposing children to images of other children's abuse as a way, experts say, of persuading them that this behavior is "normal." In its article on Sociolotron, "Pursuing the Libido's Dark Side," Wired News paraphrases one source as saying that "people shouldn't be afraid that the game's players will step away from their computers filled with violent lust.... In fact ... the fact that rape and other so-called bad acts are possible in a game like Sociolotron can actually be a valuable social experiment." Parents also might want to know that the game includes chat - "private between the people in the room, but everybody has a log of this text," the game's publishers explain.