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April 15, 2005

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Here's our lineup for this second week of April:

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Tips from a tech-savvy dad, Part 2: IM precautions

Eleven-year-old "Rachel" does a lot of instant-messaging with her friends, so I asked her dad, "Tom" (names changed to protect Rachel's privacy), what they do to keep the experience positive for Rachel. [Tom is a technology executive in California - see Part 1 for his tips on some less-well-known phenomena kids are encountering online.]

I'd seen Pew Internet & American Life figures showing that 30% of all IM-ers have gotten "spim" (spam for IM), and 39% of those under 30 had. So I asked Tom what I thought a lot of parents would want to know: "Can't this spim easily be blocked if parents and kids configure the software's preferences to block messages from anyone not on a child's buddy list?"

"Quite the contrary," Tom said. "The security protections in most IM software preferences are not all that difficult [for spimmers or malicious hackers] to bypass."

Spimmers can impersonate friends on our kids' IM buddy lists. They do that by grabbing screennames on those lists, using various methods. One, Tom told me, is the packet sniffing software "easily obtainable" off the Net" ("a lot of it is open source software, typically used for good purposes, such as network security," he added). With it, spimmers sniff traffic going across the network, scan IM conversation traffic and record screennames without even getting in an IM account.

"But that's not the only way, and I'm not even sure it's the most prevalent," Tom said. Other ways basically piggy-back on the trojan worms that infect PCs, take control of them, and steal information from them such as financial info, passwords, and email address books. Screennames can be grabbed like anything else. Spyware can even get installed on a family PC when kids go to malicious Web sites and click on what they think is a contest or poll but actually downloads software to the PC - or when they click on a link sent them by someone they think is a buddy but who most definitely isn't.

"That's why it's a really good rule," Tom said, when you get an IM like that, "to open up a new conversation window with that buddy and if they just sent you a link or a file." And don't click unless they confirmed it was them!

That's the rock-bottom basic security rule for IM-ing families. Other good rules-of-thumb for protecting family PCs:

This just in: A perfect example of an IM worm (masquerading as someone on people's buddy lists) that forced Reuters to shut its IM system down this week - at ZDNET.

Next week: An educator's view of instant messaging.

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Web News Briefs

  1. Apple's 'Tiger' OS: Parental controls

    Parents will be able to tame the "Tiger" operating system. To be "unleashed" April 29, Apple's Tiger (OS X Version 10.4) will have significant parental controls for email, Web browsing, chat/instant-messaging, etc., and what software can be downloaded from the Web. This is news in our biz: an OS with parental controls bundled in. Parents will be able to give each family member his/her own account on the Mac, each account having "its own file storage location and personal settings," Apple says. "So when you log in with your password, you'll see your Desktop picture and you'll have access to your documents, pictures, bookmarks," software, etc., apparently right where you left off in your last session on the computer. Parents will be able to enable/disable CD or DVD burning; block IMs or emails from people not on a child's buddy list; limit a small child's surfing only to sites the parents bookmark; monitor and record a child's online activities; and decide which software applications kids can use. "A T-rated video game such as 'World of Warcraft' may be great for your teenage daughter, but you may not want your six-year-old to play along," says Apple about that last feature. Privacy is upgraded too: Under "Surf Securely" on this page, Apple says that by "using Safari's new Private Browsing feature, no information about where you visit on the Web, personal information you enter, or pages you visit are saved or cached." Here's early coverage from MacWorld and Techworld UK, but they don't say much about parental controls beyond Safari's child-bookmarks feature, which is really more for little kids because it'd be absurd to try bookmarking all the sites a teenager would need to visit even for a single school project or product research session.

  2. New Windows patches issued!

    Microsoft just released eight new security patches for Windows computers, five of them critical, VNUNET reports. The critical ones help keep malicious hackers from taking control of our PCs. To make sure you have them (some Windows XP systems are set to download patches automatically), go to Windows Update, where Microsoft will scan your system for patch needs, tell you what it needs, and let you download patches.

  3. More P2P 'pirates' to walk plank

    The litigation part of the music industry's anti-file-sharing fight hasn't let up. This time, the RIAA is focusing on university students who have been using the next-generation, high-speed Internet2 research network to do their media-sharing, CNET reports (via Internet2, full-length movies can be downloaded in a few minutes). The Web site enabling P2P at that level is, which was thought to be a safe haven for P2P. Students at 18 universities received notice this week. According to the Washington Post, the MPAA (film industry association) plans to go after file-sharers on Internet2 as well, and the RIAA has now passed the 10,000 lawsuits mark. For some students' views on all this, see the Washington Post's Random Access column. Across the oceans, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) in London announced that it would be suing 963 file-sharers in Japan, the Netherlands, Finland, Ireland and Iceland, Reuters reports, among them its first lawsuits in Asia.

  4. You don't want this 'patch'!

    Tell your kids not to download this "patch"! Malicious hackers are sending around an email that looks like it's from Microsoft Windows Update and that tells people to click on a link to what appears to be a Microsoft security-update page, ZDNET reports. The page is a fake, and if they click on the "patch" in it, they'll download a trojan virus that takes control of your PC. The email's subject looks like "Update your windows machine," "Urgent Windows Update," or "Important Windows Update," the San Jose Mercury News reports. What's extra tricky about this email is that it's circulating at the same time Microsoft does its monthly security update. Microsoft doesn't notify us about security patches via email. Everyone in your family should know to go only to the Windows Update page to see if a patch is needed (using the Internet Explorer browser - the page's system scanner doesn't work with Firefox). Here's the real Microsoft security notification page.

  5. Microsoft helps cops catch predators

    Canadian police and Microsoft have just increased the odds against online pedophiles. They've launched the "Child Exploitation Tracking System," a secure database housed at Ottawa's National Child Exploitation Coordination Center and "designed to help officers link and share huge amounts of information," the Associated Press reports. The database "contains information gathered from international sources as well as from investigating Canadian officers, allowing investigators to plug in an email address, credit-card number or even an Internet alias and see what related information may be known," the AP adds. The so far $3.7 million project is "a bit of a miracle," its originator said. It all started with a January '03 email to Bill Gates from Sgt. Paul Gillespie of the Toronto police sex-crimes unit, "asking for help in battling child pornography."

  6. P2P fueling broadband growth

    First we were breathless watching the phenomenal growth of the Web itself (see my lead item back in 10/00). Then it was the number of people going online. Now the breathtaking stats are about broadband adoption (fast connections in homes). And guess what's fueling its high-speed growth? File-sharing, Wired News reports. Because of it, "demand for bandwidth grew 42% in 2004." I was amazed to discover recently that P2P traffic "significantly outweighs Web traffic," according to UK-based CacheLogic, which tracks Internet traffic worldwide. That's right: More people use the Net for file-sharing than for surfing the Web. And P2P "is continuing to grow," CacheLogic adds. Lately, the interest has shifted from music to video, Wired News reports. "Efforts by the film and recording industries to crack down on illegal trading of copyright works haven't resulted in a drop in traffic volumes." For an amazing, at-a-glance shot of what Net traffic looks like, see this slide from a CacheLogic presentation. It represents '04 Net-traffic data compiled from the largest ISPs in Europe, the US, Latin America, and East Asia (the little red stripe is Web traffic, dwarfed by the big, fat gray, fuschia, and turquoise stripes for file-sharing). One begins to see what the media companies are up against and wonder how much even 10,000 lawsuits can really stem the tide.

  7. Flak for Grouper file-sharing

    Grouper was thought to be a safe, legal alternative to P2P, but BMG Music thinks not, the Los Angeles Times reports. BMG says it doesn't see the difference between millions sharing files via, say, Kazaa, and a closed group of 30 people (Grouper's group limit) sharing files among each other. Grouper's creators say that group size isn't the only distinguishing factor; files are streamed, or played across the Net, not downloaded from friends' PCs. The LA Times cites copyright experts as saying there's no clear answer as to what's legal, here. Grouper is one of a number of services that represent a trend in online media-sharing predicted by Net pundit and New York University prof. Clay Shirky: sharing across small private networks. In an email, Clay also cited as examples Groovenetworks (recently acquired by Microsoft),, and Waste (I can't find a site, but it was described back in '03 by CNET and CNN).

  8. Misleading Web sites: The upside

    The Web is a tricky place for uncritical thinkers to gather information. But it can also be a wonderful tool for developing critical thinking. ran a helpful article recently showing how parents, teachers, and children can use that learning tool. A good example the piece points out is, run by a white supremacist group. "What better way for a hate group to get out their message than to disguise their agenda and masquerade their hate in a well designed, albeit historically inaccurate, Web site?" writer Frank Westcott asks. He offers tips and things to look out for in critical surfing, such as tildes (~) in URLs, checking whois to find out who's behind a site, and Google's links-to feature (showing all the hate groups that link to For more on this subject, see "Critical thinking: Kids' best tool for research."

  9. 'Flashy' phones kids will love

    More evidence that cell phones are the new (Net-connected) PCs: Macromedia's plans for phones with its Flash software. You see it on cell phones all over Asia, with their "colorful animation, games, and menu interfaces ... unlike anything seen in this country," USATODAY reports. "Today, the cell phone is a communication device, but several new models tout features such as instant messaging [also a communication device for teenagers!], games and the ability to listen to digital music and watch video clips. Such features are expected to become standard as cell phone models get much more powerful in coming years." Such features will also make cell phones - and the mobile Internet - even more appealing to kids and teens, presenting fresh challenges to parents who want them to have good experiences with the Net. An example: "Edmonton, Alberta, Flash developer Grant Skinner ... foresees a time soon when a camera phone with embedded Flash software snaps a picture and instantly uploads it to the Internet, allowing for comments to be posted online and sent back to the phone." And some numbers: "About 1.6 billion cell phones are in use worldwide." Some 650 million were sold last year (only 199 million in '04), with a projected 890 million by 2008. Of course, game players and IM devices like Zipit also make the Net mobile for kids.

  10. iPods banned in Oz school

    I've heard of school rules about cell phones, but this is the first case I've seen involving iPods. "The yuppie consumer gadget will not be permitted in class, because it encourages kids to be selfish and lonely, according to the school principal, UK-based The Register reports from San Francisco (a very international report!). "Principal Kerrie Murphy noticed that iPod-toting children were isolating themselves into a cocoon of solipsism." Sounds a little like what can happen on occasion at our house! Anyway, it's a thoughtful, rather irreverent piece about how technology can both enhance and limit our interaction with and openness to each other.

  11. No. of young gamblers on the rise

    The Internet reportedly has a role in increased gambling by young people. "For the first time, experts and treatment centers that deal with problem gamblers across the country are seeing an increasing number of adolescents who have developed serious gambling problems," the Christian Science Monitor reports. It cites the situation in Connecticut, where it was once rare for any gambling treatment center to have clients under 18. "Now, 11 youngsters are in formal programs getting help. And a youth gambling education group in Minnesota says it's seeing "a tremendous increase" in demand from schools and youth organizations "looking for tools to help kids deal with problem gambling." The Monitor points out two Web resources from the North American Institute for Training in Duluth, Minn., one for kids ( and one for parents (, with a fund of links to research on the subject).

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


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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