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Friday, March 03, 2006

Site for young PC-security fixers

What a concept! Instead of having some adult know-it-all design a Web site for teens about PC security, have a smart teenaged person design it! You would think this intuitive, but it's actually unprecedented. Just-launched SORTED is the only teen-designed and -built Web site of its kind. It represents the low-key brilliance of London-based Childnet International, a nonprofit online-safety organization that puts a premium on the expertise of youth (yes, Childnet is a sister organization and I'm biased, but it's true even so). SORTED is an online guide to dealing with viruses, worms, phishing attacks, spam, spyware, etc. for teens, the people whose computers are most vulnerable to them – the people who most need to have it all sorted out (because parents are less likely to!). Why are the PCs kids and teens use most vulnerable? Check out this week's issue of my newsletter to find out. ;-)

Local band gets record deal (online)

Northern Michigan band Deja Norm'al won a recording contract with New York City label 10-34 Records in a competition conducted solely online," the Cadillac [Mich.] News reports. Deja Norm'al was trying to figure how to afford making a CD when a talent scout suggested they enter the "Hey! 10-34 Records, Sign My Band" contest in MySpace. They created a page and posted some of their music, along with some 500 other "hopeful rock groups posting their original songs." The bands "were rated half by a panel of five judges and half by fans voting on MySpace," according to the Cadillac News. "The band winning five times in a row would walk away with a recording contract and a national tour." Deja Norm'al is now shooting its first music video in preparation for their summer tour. 10-34 Records is "known for using grass-roots tactics 'to bring the best young artists to the forefront of music'."

Critical thinkers needed!

Their grey-matter filters need to be working better than ever to find facts on the Web. In his latest "Portals" column for the Wall Street Journal, Lee Gomes talks about something students and all Web researchers need to be aware of: "original content." It's a trend in the Web economy in which little businesses make money from Web sites by getting Web searchers to go to them. But the information in them has to be "original" if people are to find them in search engines – the search engines penalize sites (move them down in search results) if they simply duplicate info from other sites. So these little businesses pay writers (very little) to slightly reword and, in effect, fictionalize *real* information from, for example, the World Health Organization or What to do? If you're seeking fact rather than fiction, it's a good idea to search, Google, etc. for a known brand like the WHO or Britannica, then search those reputable sites for specific info. In another example, if you're looking for authenticity in pundits' blogs, be careful; we now know some companies are paying bloggers to get the corporate message out - or even writing parts of their blog posts. The New York Times gives the Wal-Mart example.

Arrests involving blogging

The Houston Chronicle's story calls MySpace "the Studio 54 for the Internet set. And just like the seminal disco-era nightclub, MySpace has transcended being a place 'to see and be seen' and become a cultural benchmark." But with no bouncers, and the "carding" at registration doesn't really work. There are some safeguards for younger teens who enter these social-networking "nightclubs," but they do little to stop contact with much older people. The Chronicle tells of two arrests in the Houston area, one involving charges of sexual assault, one that resulted from a sting operation, after the child told her father, who went to the police. In Connecticut, the Hartford Courant reported that "federal law enforcement officials implored parents Thursday to keep a close watch on their children's Internet activities as they announced the arrests of two out-of-state men they say had sexual contact with two young girls [14 and 11] they encountered on" Posts in the site led to phone calls, then to in-person meetings, in one case in the girl's home, in the other a Danbury mall. The Courant cites the view of an FBI agent on the case as saying that monitoring of kids is "crucial between 3 and 5 pm, when children are usually home from school and parents are still working." [Thanks to Det. Frank Dannahey for pointing out the latter story (see his commentary, 1/20).]

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Everywhere parental controls

One sign of "media convergence" – the Web on phones, game consoles and handhelds, etc. – is proliferating parental controls. TiVo and Microsoft's Windows operating system are joining PlayStation Portable, Xbox Live, Xbox 360, Nintendo DS (soon), and cellphones (soon) with "KidZone" software and "Family Safety Settings," respectively. TiVo's parental controls "will be made available without additional charge in June to the 1.4 million users of [its] stand-alone set-top boxes," the New York Times reports. With them, parents can pick the ratings and programming picks of one of two groups, Common Sense Media or the Parents Television Council. "Children watch only programs the designated group deems appropriate for the age range specified by the parent," the Times explains. Microsoft's controls are called "Family Safety Settings." The company just sent out some email invitations to potential testers. The settings controls will be part of the new Windows Live services (like OneCare and the Safety Center) and will be included in the next version of the Windows operating system, called "Vista," CNET reports. With them, parents can "filter online content … create individual accounts for children, and see activity reports on the Web sites they visited," CNET says. Of course, parental controls are fine, they can be helpful, but I'm not sure their proliferation is giving parents any more control, the way the Web's developing. Do post here or in the NetFamilyForum - or email me - if you agree, disagree, or wonder what on Earth I'm talking about. ;-)

Pick-'n'-choose channels

It's "on the horizon," USATODAY reports, "thanks to new technology, shifting sentiment in Washington, and deep-pocketed rivals such as AT&T and Verizon." Bye-bye "expanded basic" with zillions of unwanted TV channels, apparently. And this is nothing new, globally speaking. US cable providers are behind those in Spain, Italy, Canada, Hong Kong, and the UK. Meanwhile, family-programming packages are either available or in the pipeline (here's USATODAY's handy chart with providers, prices, programs, and start dates).

'Big Brother' factor in blogging

Kids aren't just worried about parents reading their blogs, Business Week reports, and this is a good thing. Reportedly, it's sinking in with teen social-networkers that they need to protect themselves "not only from predators and scam artists, but from nosy employers and campus authorities" too. For example, Business Week tells of a University of North Carolina professor who scanned Facebook profiles "to determine which students to accept into his class." So interesting workarounds are developing. Some bloggers sprinkle their profiles with fiction to throw off readers outside their peer groups. Others are actually using the services' privacy features (blocking strangers). Some social-networkers who feel over-exposed just move on to other services, possibly creating fresh persona.

State of Web panhandling

It started a few years ago with (Karyn got help offloading some major credit card debt), but it has gotten more complicated as the ranks of online panhandlers have grown, reports the Fort Wayne (Ind.) News-Sentinel. People are expecting something in return. Sometimes that's innocent entertainment, sometimes advice or commentary. Other times it's not so innocent and pretty risky. See "Porn revolution & teen girls" and "Kids & Webcams." And of course now there are sites "aggregating" panhandlers, as we're seeing in so many subject categories on the Web. Examples from the News-Sentinel:,, and Fundraiser wannabes should be wary of the membership fees some of them charge. "Here's a good one," the News-Sentinel says: "At the dubious, you can pay $35 to post your plea for six months - or $99 for a full year. Get the discount while you can."

WoW game: Highly populated

I'd say a population of 6 million could qualify a locale as almost a *real* alternate world, not just a virtual one. World of Warcraft, the global online game just passed that population milestone, CNET reports, citing game creator Blizzard Entertainment figures. "The game officially launched in North America, Australia and New Zealand in November of 2004, and has since racked up milestone after milestone, with launches in Korea, Europe, China, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau," CNET says. It reached the 5 million mark this past December and will soon be available in Spanish, in addition to its English, French, and German versions. For more on alternate-world games, see "Gamers 'outsourcing'" and "Virtual real estate mogul."

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Apple-flavored home entertainment

Remember hi-fi's? (I'm dating myself in saying we had one when I was a really little kid.) Apple's bringing them back in its stylishly new/retro way. At least in name. Steve Jobs just announced the $349 iPod Hi-Fi (aka "iPod boombox" or "home stereo"), "an all-in-one speaker system housed in a case roughly the size of a shoebox," the New York Times reports. Apple is moving into home entertainment big time, Larry Magid of CBS News (and reports, with the iPod Hi-Fi and the new Mac Minis Steve also introduced. The Minis "are unique not only because they have Intel processors and are up to five times faster than the previous version … they connect to TV sets and are able to stream video, audio and photographs from other Macs and Windows PCs in the home directly to a TV set. Larry goes on to describe the products' pluses and minuses in detail at CBSNews. Here, too, are PC magazine (calling the Hi-Fi a "boombox") and USATODAY.

MySpace in short (film)

Indie filmmaker David Lehre, 21, co-creator (with his friends) of the 11-minute parody MySpace: The Movie, just signed with for further film development, the Associated Press reports. The film has gotten the kind of marketing MySpace enjoys: viral. Since Lehre first screened it at his birthday party a month ago, the AP says, is has been viewed more than 6 million times and has received a complimentary email from MySpace co-founder Tom Anderson (who's very famous among MySpacers because he's the first "friend" who shows up after everyone registers). Fans have grabbed it from Lehre's site and uploaded it to various online-media host sites, e.g., (where – though about 20,000 videos are uploaded daily – this is the most-watched video, the AP says). It's probably all over the file-sharing networks too. It's not pretty but, like many parodies, there's a certain accuracy to its depiction.

Schools blocking MySpace

Adding to their black lists of sites to be blocked is happening in increasing numbers of US school districts Reuters reports. For example, "the Rhode Island Network for Educational Technology, a nonprofit that handles Internet networks for the state's 36 public school districts, said 80% of the schools had requested an Internet filter to screen out," according to Reuters. It adds that "school districts in Florida and several other states and private universities have also installed filters on their Internet networks that block the site." I hope schools know that this might be only part of a solution toward student (and school) protection. Blocking one social-networking site doesn't stop students from moving to others. In its list of such sites, Wikipedia links to nearly four dozen, and it doesn't claim to be comprehensive. BTW, this wire story was picked up by papers all over the world, including The People's Daily in Beijing. The Associated Press reported later this week that 21 students at TeWinkle Middle School in Costa Mesa, Calif., were suspended "for allegedly posting graphic threats against a classmate" in MySpace.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Surfer-advising software

It's hard to imagine busy Web surfers (especially young ones) bothering with the slight slow-down SiteAdvisor represents to the search-and-surf experience, but we may be looking at our surfing future. SiteAdvisor is a think-before-you-click software product that, when you've turned up a bunch of search results in Google or MSN Search, tells you whether it's safe to click on links to specific sites. It's a free (in beta-testing) add-on to the Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers that Washington Post security writer Brian Krebs has been testing. The reason why it may be our future is because it deals with the sad new reality of Web surfing: all the bad stuff that gets on our family PCs when we click on the rapidly proliferating malicious sites that send the stuff. Some of that clicking happens in emails and IMs; the rest, Brian reports, happens when people click on "unfamiliar links that turn up in Google, MSN or Yahoo search results." Here's where kids and teens come in. They love games, music, contests, and all the sites and technologies that deliver them and allow the uploading of them. They're also known to click, upload, download, and surf fast, freely, fearlessly. Unfortunately, that's a spyware and malicious hacker's dream user profile. For example, Brian searched for "lyrics" in Google ("song-lyrics sites are notorious for installing spyware and adware," and where spyware is, keylogger software that, e.g., captures passwords and credit card numbers is not far behind). You have to read his account to believe all the crud downloaded on his PC (do not go to that site!). Whether or not your family downloads SiteAdvisor, a family discussion about alert surfing, IM-ing, and emailing might be a good idea. Nasty Web sites' numbers are growing, and their URLs and promises often look great to kids.

X-rated film-promotion game

An X-rated videogame promoting an R-rated movie, as the National Institute on Media & the Family's president David Walsh put it. It was a curious marketing strategy for "Running Scared," a film that did not get great reviews and with a "story line" highly populated by prostitutes, pimps, mobsters, bad cops, and pedophiles (the Chicago Trib's reviewer did have "a sneaking suspicion" that the film "could become a cult classic, and an even better hunch that it will top the box office this week. And who can blame moviegoers? It does, after all, have a lot of characters." Of the film's companion videogame's two versions, found at its Web site, the one rated "M" (for 17+) has sexually explicit content on Level 2 (which has a form of age verification with the required registration). The Minneapolis-based National Institute issued a parental alert, and WCCO-TV in Minnesota reported that the "racy interlude has apparently [since] been removed." The Institute does an annual "report card" on videogame violence. Here's another review of "Running Scared" in the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

Monday, February 27, 2006

The new PC security risk

Great. Just as we Net users were getting smart about phishing and viruses, online criminals have moved on, the New York Times reports. "In some countries, like Brazil, [phishing] has been eclipsed by an even more virulent form of electronic con — the use of keylogging programs that silently copy the keystrokes of computer users and send that information to the crooks." The little programs are much easier to exploit than the social engineering of phishing emails. Even kids are exploiting them. Brazilian police just arrested a ring of 55 people, 9 of them teenagers, for stealing $4.7 million from 200 different accounts at six banks. Tell your kids: We all need to avoid clicking on unfamiliar Web links in emails and IMs. And PC owners need continued vigilance about Microsoft security patches (or automate them), firewalls, and antivirus protection. These little keylogger programs (just like the kind in monitoring software parents use, hopefully openly, to check up on online kids) can also be embedded in files traded on file-sharing networks and, of course, in malicious Web sites – very often sites offering free games (sites kids like to frequent), a new study at the University of Washington found. Here's a report on the study at Yahoo News, and the New York Times's sidebar, "Protecting Yourself from Keylogging Thieves."

Mac users, Apple just issued its latest security patches, ZDNET reports. For context, see "Is Mac OS as safe as ever?" at CNET and "Straight talk on Mac security risks" at MacWorld.