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July 16, 2004

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We always welcome your emails - send concerns, questions, stories to me anytime via Here's our lineup for this second week of July:

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Family Tech: What if our PC's a zombie?!

You may've heard of the new Digital Age kind of zombie. I hope so, because it could be your family PC. Actually, the odds aren't great that your computer has been turned into a dummy machine run by malicious hackers, but the probability is growing - especially in households with very connected kids (gamers, IM-ers, file-sharers, Web researchers, emailers, etc.). So if your PC's acting strangely (unexplained shutdowns, error messages, etc.), it'd be good to have a family chat about what everybody's using the Internet for - what applications they're using, what's being downloaded, how Preferences are being configured, and so on.

It'd also be good to have the anti-virus software (which I trust you've installed and kept up-to-date) scan the PC(s) for viruses. The problem is, there are more and more ways for family computers to catch worms and viruses, and that is all a zombie is: a computer that has been infected by a very controlling virus.

Sometimes all a surfer/Web researcher has to do is go to a Web site to catch it (see 7/2). That could easily be a child randomly browsing all over the Web, oblivious to the consequences. [It helps to talk about the importance of alert browsing: using a search engine (not just typing in URLs you're not sure about), reading the brief description before clicking, trying to stay on topic (whether for school research or a favorite fan site, game, or friend's blog).] In other cases, the virus might have come in via an opened email attachment, an instant message, or a misnamed "music" file downloaded with file-sharing software.

Virus writers' favorite goal these days is not to damage your computer, but rather to take control of it altogether - turn it into a zombie (see "One very illegal summer job" below for how groups of teen are allegedly capitalizing on controlling networks of these dummy PCs all over the world).

When this happens, the quite reasonable question comes up: "If our PC's a zombie, what can we do about it?" We put that question to someone who answers it all the time: Ted Werth, founder and CEO of Boston-based PlumChoice, which provides tech support for homes and small businesses.

First of all, be sure to make good use of that anti-virus software or service. "The most popular ones," Ted emailed us, "are McAfee's VirusScan, Norton's AntiVirus, or Trend Micro's HouseCall. Because these are different companies, sometimes one of them may find a virus that is missed by another. When any of these products are run on your computer, they'll identify what virus(es) you may have and which of your files are infected."

Before you tell the virus detector to clean, delete, or quarantine whatever it found, Ted suggests that you first try to save critical files and software - address books, emails, photos, important documents, financial software, etc. - burn them onto a CD or move them onto an external hard drive or another PC on your home network, using your usual backup method.

"The last step is to remove the virus," Ted writes. Most of the time, the anti- virus software can take care of the virus with a click on "Clean," "Delete," or "Quarantine." "Otherwise, you will have to take manual steps that could be as simple as running a removal tool (software) the vendor provides or as complex as stepping through a process of manually removing the virus." In some cases, he adds, the virus simply can't be completely removed, "necessitating the need for you to reinstall your computer's operating system" - that disk that came in the box with your PC which you thought you'd never use.

Of course, if you get stumped at any of the above points, first ask your tech- literate kid for help. Second, see if McAfee, Symantec, etc., will give you free virus-removal support. Third, go to or any of the other companies (mentioned in articles linked to just below) that, for a reasonable fee, provide online or drop-in tech support to home PC users.

Further info and help

We always appreciate hearing your stories about dealing with kids and PC security issues. Email them anytime via!

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Web News Briefs

  1. File-sharing's up

    Unless your family's had "the discussion," chances are any file-sharers at your house are swapping tunes as much as ever. Despite the recording industry's thousands of lawsuits, last month file-sharing was up 19% over that of June 2003 - "8.3 million people were online at any one time" using P2P services such as Kazaa and eDonkey, USATODAY reports. Kazaa is becoming less popular, while New York-based eDonkey and Israel-based iMesh are picking up some of that P2P traffic (BitTorrent is another very popular service, Reuters UK reports ). Most of the files being swapped were tunes (1 billion songs were available for downloading last month, up from 820 million a year ago). But parents, look at this: porn videos and images came in second. So back to "the discussion" - about file-sharing activity at your house. The best way to start might be to discuss PC security: e.g., how the eDonkey software's preferences have been configured, what's being shared (if anything), if the kid's concerned about spyware, and whether we shouldn't take a look at all this at the PC together. For more discussion points, see "Teen writes: Kids like P2P risks", "A tech-literate dad on file-sharing" and "File-sharing realities for families." After you've been through the security issues, it might be interesting to ask your kids about the ethics involved. We'd love to hear how the discussion goes - email me anytime via

  2. Graphic images online

    Parents worry about the graphic images children are exposed to in the media, but Americans in general are divided about what should be available on the Web. Nearly half of Americans disapprove of posting images online that have been deemed too horrific to run in newspapers and on TV, according to a recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life project. But "24% went online to view some of most graphic war images," and "of those who have seen the images, 28% actively sought them out. When viewed, the images elicit mixed feelings as well as mixed opinions. Pew found that, though "millions of Internet users want to be able to view the graphic war images and they see the Internet as an alternative source of news and information from traditional media ... many who do venture outside the traditional and familiar standards of the mainstream news organizations to look at the images online end up feeling very uncomfortable. Women are particularly opposed to the display of the images and are much less likely than men to have viewed the images online." Released late last week, the nationwide survey was conducted in May, when some of the most violent imagery was coming out of Iraq. Here's coverage of this survey by Newsday (New York), the Chicago Sun-Times, the BBC, the Associated Press, and ClickZ Stats.

  3. Xanga and other teen 'hangouts'

    About 13% of the students at San Jose's Evergreen High School have blogs on, and that's just one online journal site. One student told the San Jose Mercury News that he visits Xanga "like 50 times a day," either to post to his own blog or visit someone else's. Most of the blogs are innocuous, some cruel. "Evergreen's Xanga crowd operated largely under the radar of school officials until a parent called attention to an anonymous blog called Mc_Smack_Crew that mocks students with digitally altered photos and vicious messages," the Mercury News reports. "School officials alerted San Jose police, who opened a 'hate crime' investigation. The police decided last month not to press charges, calling it a 'case of name-calling, however foul'." The school blocked access to the site from school computers, which of course did nothing to help the site's young victims. But most of the Evergreen blogs are the typical teen diary fare (or the digital sort): true confessions, gossip, school news, flirtations, virtual relationships, and seeking validation through peers' posts/responses and links. "Most teens abide by an unwritten code of the blogosphere: What happens online stays online," e.g., test relationships - reading an interesting prospect's blog, learning all about him, flirting with him via IM and posts on his blog, deciding he's a little too weird, and ending it, without ever having had even a phone conversation.

    Interesting note for parents: The secrets in today's teen diaries are open to the public but not to parents, who remain generally clueless about them. In fact, some parents feel they're invading their child's privacy if they do what everybody else does, go to the blog, and read it (see an example in "Daughter's blog, mom's dilemma"). Would you agree? Is it wrong to read your kid's Web site? Please email us your answers!

  4. Blogging's crazy numbers

    About every 5.8 seconds a new blog is created somewhere in the world, The Register reports. That's 8,000-17,000 new blogs every day. These figures are from, which says it keeps an eye on 3,097,030 blogs.

  5. One very illegal summer job

    Unbeknownst to countless families around the world, groups of teenage malicious hackers are renting out zombie family PCs to "spammers, fraudsters, and digital saboteurs," Reuters reports. Zombie PCs, as mentioned in the feature above, are regular, old Net-connected home computers that have been infected by a "trojan" worm or virus that allows the attackers to control the infected PCs. "The result is a powerful network of zombie PCs that security experts call a 'botnet'," according to Reuters. Scotland Yard's computer crime unit told Reuters these botnets are networks of as many as 10,000-30,000 computers that small groups of young people, probably working out of their bedrooms, are renting to anybody for as little as $100 an hour. Consequently, "there may be millions of such PCs around the world doing the bidding of crime gangs," say computer security experts who believe the gangs are using these kids as child labor - a new, technically sophisticated form of it. As for the botnets they've developed, experts are worried the people who manipulate them will move beyond mere spamming to taking down key data networks and major Web sites.

  6. Michigan: Kids' do-not-email list

    For this law to work, a lot will depend on execution. "Michigan will soon become the second state [after Utah] to make it illegal to certain types of spam to kids," the Detroit News reports. Parents will be able to add their children's email addresses to a state-run do-not-email registry modeled after the federal do-not-call list run the Federal Trade Commission. Anyone who email those addresses about porn, gambling, tobacco, drugs or any products children can't legally purchase could be fined $5,000 per email and made to forfeit their computer, according to the law, which has been sent to Gov. Jennifer Granholm (her spokesperson said she will sign the bill). The idea of a do-not-spam list for kids "has attracted questions about its enforcement," according to the Detroit News. "Some parents are skittish about giving their kids' e-mail addresses to the government." The FTC rejected the idea of a US do-not-spam system as unworkable.

    A more workable solution - for anyone who wants only kid-friendly email in their in-boxes - is filtered email. There a lot of options, among them:,,,, and

  7. Tracking kids with tech: Japan & UK

    A primary school in Osaka will soon be testing a high-tech way of knowing children's whereabouts at all times. RFID (for radio frequency identification) chips will be attached to students' schoolbags or clothing tags and read by readers (like bar-code readers in grocery stores) that will be "installed in school gates and other key locations," UK-based reports. Legoland in Denmark is already using this "Kidspotter" tech. As of last May, children entering the amusement park were given RFID bracelets that could be tracked anywhere within its boundaries, so that parents could be called on their cell phones about their lost child's location, reported in a separate article. Just one caveat: the marketing angle. The chips will also tell Lego exactly where customers go, which will be great for "insightfully targeted marketing campaigns for the perennially popular Lego brick toy sets."

    Interestingly, tracking kids by cell phones, on the other hand, has some important detractors in the UK. "A coalition of children's charities has urged the UK government to set strict controls on services that let parents track their children by their mobiles," the BBC reports. The organizations are worried that, as more and more companies market the technology without legal safeguards, the tech can get into the wrong hands. "The onus is on the child to decide whether to accept or reject the request, if it is not from a parent."

  8. Spyware: Not just a privacy prob

    Here's a new rule for child surfers: Don't click on "yes" to all those "Download this!" offers they run into on the sites they visit - check with Mom or Dad first. "Why?" they might ask. There's a strong chance they'll be downloading spyware, or "scumware," as the Wall Street Journal's Lee Gomes calls it. It can "reset your home page to a porn site ... and then refuse to let you change the page back" (see our "Spyware & an 8-year-old" last week) or "hijack your search requests and then direct them to its own page" or even "secretly record the keystrokes you use to log in to bank accounts and then send the info off to who knows where," Lee writes, adding: "A program making the rounds in Europe installs a piece of software that dials up expensive 976 numbers the spyware authors have set up." There's a fund of information on spyware and what to do about it at

  9. Another view of hackers

    We hear from the media much more about malicious hackers than about the regular kind - many of whom are young and still living at home! So, because many news people put a negative twist on the word "hacker," we thought fellow parents might be interested in the way hackers view themselves. Insights are provided in this USATODAY article (part of a series) on a conference in New York over the weekend called "The Fifth HOPE" (HOPE for Hackers On Planet Earth).

  10. Video game camp

    Hmmm. The campers are "all guys ages 15 to 20," USAToday reports . Though this all sounds a bit sexist, the good news is, they're using New York University's Center for Advanced Digital Application's "cutting-edge facilities to learn the techniques behind best-selling digital masterpieces such as Doom, Quake, and Madden NFL Football." Typical day at camp? "Campers will arrive each day for a 9 a.m. warm-up of playing time-tested analog games like chess or cards, followed by a discussion of the elements that explain the games' persistent popular appeal. Lights-out could happen more than 14 hours later, if they choose to work in the computer lab from 9 to 11 p.m." Campers can choose from three majors: art, design, or programming. We hope there are camperships for this elite- sounding program that costs more than $5,000.

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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