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February 18, 2005

Dear Subscribers:

Next week the newsletter will be on winter break - please look for daily kid-tech news at my blog. The next issue will arrive in your in-box on March 4. Here's our lineup for this third week of February:

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RFID & kids: Good or bad?

Partly because a school in California was going to use it without consulting parents and partly because people don't understand it, RFID has been in the news a lot lately. RFID, aka "radio-frequency identification," technology so far has been used for inventory control and highway tolls. Now it's suddenly in the realm of children's privacy.

Brittan Elementary School, north of Sacramento, Calif., was widely in the news because it was to be the first school in California to test this next-generation bar-code technology on student ID badges. This week the school decided not to go forward with the program "when the company that developed the technology pulled out," the Associated Press reported. The proposed test had sparked protests from parents, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (see its press release), and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (and media coverage nationwide), the San Jose Mercury News had earlier reported.

Brittan's principal said the technology was only for verifying attendance and keeping students safe (by making sure people who don't belong at school aren't hanging out there) - not tracking kids. The InCom Corporation, a small start-up in the area, was to be the RFID provider. Its founders said concerns come from not understanding how little the technology can actually do.

The real issue may be where RFID is headed, when it's associated with people's identities and movements (especially children's). Will future versions be able to "know" or "tell" too much?

Libraries have been using RFID to keep track of books, so I asked Jean Armour Polly, who is a librarian as well as "Net-mom," for her view on RFID: "People need to calm down about RFID until they know more about how it works. Most of the chips have room for little besides a bar code number. The bar code has to be associated with a database [at the school] that 'knows' who the child is. The RFID chip itself knows nothing besides its own barcode, although there is a debate about how much data should be on the chip, and some chips can be programmed with more data. The ACLU and other watchdog groups are right to be wary about that kind of chip, how it is used, if the data is encrypted, etc.

"The chips used in these badges," Jean said, "may be similar to the ones used in library books. The distance from which the chip can be read by the antenna is very, very short - less than a couple of feet. The typical application would be to have an RFID chip in a student ID card and, when the student passes by the antenna, the chip is read. It couldn't track the child's movement all over the building like a GPS receiver, except to know that the child entered the classroom at 9 am and left it at 10."

Maybe schools should just wait and see what happens in Congress with the national ID that Republican lawmakers have floated - or what the new RFID-"enhanced" US passports or Virginia drivers' licenses are like (see ZDNET) - before they put this technology on student IDs. We need to understand a technology before it's used to protect kids. And, as any parent or educator knows, it can also be problematic in the hands of kids.

"I don't predict popularity for this system," Net-mom/Jean added. "It would be easy to just carry a friend's ID in your pocket. It would be read by the antenna and logged to the teacher's computer and would 'prove' he was in class, while he was really down the street at the arcade."

Email me what you think about RFID-enabled student IDs. Is the tech just not for kids (see the medical app mentioned below)? Are safety and attendance-related goals outweighed by what detractors call the Big Brother factor? I'd love to hear from you (the address:!

More out there on RFID

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Parents write: Trash talk in games; Neopets & advergames

  1. On trash talk in online games

    JoAnn in California emailed the following in response to "A mom writes: Trash talk in online games":

    "Consider it a phase. They are going to learn and use the language anyway, so they might as well have a controlled arena to do it. As long as they learn to contain this type of behavior where it is 'accepted,' and it does not bleed out into everyday life, then there should be no problem. It's best that they get it out of their system in a safe, observed, controlled environment. They will learn that it is only appropriate in certain times and places. If you forbid it, they will find a way and do it behind your back. Just think of what your parents thought of the things you did and said at that age. The next generation, when we are the grandparents, will be doubly shocking to us. 'Progress' is a fact of life, and we can only offer advice and good examples, but ultimately it will happen, and there's not a darn thing we can do to stop it.

    "I'm all for teaching kids the 'right way,' but there will always be corruption, and all we can do is educate and pray we did all we could. Knowledge is power.... Good luck."

  2. On Neopets & advergames

    Janet in Germany emailed the following in response to last week's feature on advergames & 'the nag factor':

    "Even though I get sick of the 'I want whatever' myself, I am so far more concerned with sites like that encourage kids to post their photos and personal information and allow access to neo-about Nazi and porn sites, that I would highly encourage parents sticking to a more child-safe site like Neopets any day!!"

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Web News Briefs

  1. Drive-by disses

    On the surface, this is a story about grownups, not teens, but for that very reason it might make a great family discussion point. Joseph Steffen, an aide to Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich (R), was forced to resign last week because of his damaging chatroom posts and emails about the Democratic mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley, the Washington Post reports. "Like millions of Americans for whom the Internet has become part of daily life, Steffen may have believed that what he wrote online was private and as a result felt freer to say things he would not have said in person. But when his online discussion of the intentional spread of rumors about ... Mayor O'Malley became known, his 'private' statements led to a very public dismissal." It's that "disinhibition" that the experts talk about. "People are less comfortable maligning someone face-to-face because they don't want to see the reaction of the other person," according to the Post. "On the Internet, where people think they can remain anonymous, there are fewer inhibitions" (for the teen version, see "Cybersocializing, cyberbullying" in my 9/10 issue).

  2. 'vikings NOT minnesota'

    Our kids certainly won't learn how to get the most from the Web in a "computer skills" class, points out a commentator in the New York Times. "A teacher of Scandinavian literature at Berkeley recently described how students used the Web to research a paper on the Vikings." They were smart enough to put "vikings NOT minnesota" in the search box, but they were "perfectly willing to believe a Web site that describes early Viking settlements in Oklahoma," writes Stanford University linguist Geoffrey Nunberg in his must-read oped piece. To negotiate this bottomless, unfiltered pool of information called the Web, our children need to develop what Nunberg calls information literacy. That takes time; it's a learning process. We can't let what Nunberg calls "the legacy of the print age" (our trust in print publishing and the editors, publishers, and librarians who filtered it) or our delight in the convenience of search engines keep us from helping our kids question what they encounter on the Web (or anywhere). "Instruction in information literacy will have to pervade every level of education and every course in the curriculum, from university historians' use of collections of online slave narratives to middle-school home economics teachers showing their students where to find reliable nutrition information on the Web," Nunberg says. Maybe even before middle school! For more on this, see "Critical thinking: Kids' best research tool."

  3. Teen jailed for movie-sharing

    This wasn't just for file-sharing movies available in video stores. This 18-year-old in Arizona stood out from the pack, apparently, because he was sharing movies that were still in theaters. Parvin Dhaliwal of Mesa "pleaded guilty to possession of unauthorized copies of intellectual property, which is a felony," Tucson radio station KVOA reports, and he was sentenced to three months in prison.

  4. Ratings for UK mobiles

    It's not a rating system yet. It's actually a step in that direction for UK cell phones. "The long-awaited classification framework for adult content on mobile phones was launched [recently] by the Independent Mobile Classification Body," The Register reports. Basically, it appears to be a set of definitions or labels for content that content providers themselves have to attach to their material. "If they do not, they risk breaching the terms of the contract with their mobile operator client, who is then responsible for enforcing the rules." So, there are a lot of "ifs." But it may be an important building block for mobile operators in the US and other countries to adopt. Content labels or classifications include profanity, sex, nudity, violence, drugs, horror, imitable techniques, and universally accessible. To be in that last category, "content must not actively promote or encourage activities like drinking alcohol or gambling," according to The Register. Examples it offers of "imitable techniques," are "headbutting or use of weapons, or 'detailed descriptions of techniques that could be used in a criminal offence.' In layman's terms, that means no descriptions of how to steal a car while high on drugs and listening to illegally downloaded music." According to Juniper Research, adult content on mobiles and other portable devices is projected to reach $1 billion in worldwide sales this year. (Thanks to QuickLinks for pointing this news out.)

  5. Bye-bye, CDs?

    Yes, pretty soon they'll be obsolete, sound-recording and music-publishing experts are saying. Not huge news, of course, since formats - records, cassettes, etc. - get replaced. What's news is that, for the first time in history, the current format won't be replaced by an object you can hold in your hands. It's being replaced by a "data file," the Washington Post reports. "Think 'Dark Side of the Moon' as an invisible cyberswirl of 1's and 0's. No CD case. No liner notes to flip through. No ... nothing," the Post emotes. Our kids know this. To them it's empowering, it spells choice. They download tunes from the Net, burn them onto CDs, upload them to MP3 players, import them into sound-editing software and mix and "enhance" at will. We're the ones who have to get used to the new focus for record companies: licensing content, not selling products. But we needn't despair: CDs will be around for a while (maybe even as long as we are). And we're pretty hip too - 22 million US adults (11% of the population) own an MP3 player, reports the Dallas Morning News. The Post adds that "CD album sales are bright, but the downloadable digital future is blinding.... During the second half of 2004, more than 91 million digital tracks - songs downloaded from the Internet - were sold, compared with 19.2 million in the same period in 2003. That's an increase of 376%."

  6. Low-cost PCs reviewed

    The Mac Mini's been everywhere in the tech news due to its $499 price tag, but for those not ready for total family-PC conversion," there are alternatives in the PC world, of course. The Washington Post recently took the time to answer the question of whether $500 is enough to get all a family wants from a PC, testing eight desktops - systems from Compaq, Dell, EMachines, HP, IBuyPower, Polywell, Sys Technology, and WinBook ranging from $505 to $750. Six had at least 512 MB of RAM. Bottom line: "We found many of these desktops fine for most home and office tasks, but less suitable for high-action gaming and heavy-duty graphics or audio work." Do read the article for specifics. The Post also had what I found to be the best family-oriented review of the Mini (see "Mini's ins & outs").

  7. More spam coming (sigh

    Despite news to the contrary last month, spam is on the increase, ClickZ Stats reports. So does the BBC, offering one explanation: all those zombie PCs (in unsuspecting households out there) that got infected by trojan viruses, PCs spammers now use to send zillions of obnoxious emails about mortgages, body enhancements, and cheap prescription drugs (see "What if our PC's a zombie?!"). And now the Washington Post reports that spammers have a whole new distribution strategy. The New York Times says the US's CAN SPAM Act hasn't helped a bit. "The law did not prohibit unsolicited commercial email [just the fraudulent kind] and has turned out to be worse than useless." It basically made spam legal! The inevitable solution, ZDNET suggests: "We're about to become a whitelist world." What's that? you ask. Well, you know about black lists - telling our spam filters and ISPs filtering services what emails we don't want. Spam experts say that's no longer effective. Soon we'll have to tell these Internet checkpoints what email addresses we want to hear from (like this newsletter please!). Everything else will get blocked. The New York Times mentions another solution that's been circulating - kind of postage-stamp technology that makes the sender "pay." Meanwhile, spam and viruses "are also spreading fast to cell phones and other handheld, wireless devices," the Denver Post reports citing two recent studies. Oh joy!

  8. Less child porn from Oz

    In a way, it's all good news in Australia. The number of complaints in Australia about online child pornography "have soared more than 300%" since 2000, but the number of sites based in that country has "fallen dramatically," Australian IT reports. The growth in complaints to the Australian Broadcasting Authority's Internet Complaints Hotline shows an awareness both of the problem and of a body that apparently can do something about it (the diminishing number of Oz-based sites is obviously good news). "Of 404 investigations completed by the ABA, 293 found prohibited content, including 266 items classified as an 'exploitative/offensive depiction of a child,' or child pornography," according to Australian IT. Only three sites were found to be hosted in Australia and were issued "take-down orders" by the ABA, though they must not have been illegal, because "none warranted referral to police." The bad news for the US is, 75% of the 380 sites deemed illegal by the ABA were based in the US (about 10% in Europe). In the US, complaints about online child porn can go to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's CyberTipline ( or 800.843.5678), in Canada to (or toll-free by phone to 866.658.9022). Hotlines throughout Europe can be found right on the home page at

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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