A recent study shows that most Canadian parents are taking some action to
monitor their kids’ on-line activities. Their fears are often justified. According to a detective (who works undercover so we won’t mention his name) with the San Bernadino, Calif., sheriff’s department, over 1,000 cases were investigated in 1999 just by their one special Crimes Against Children Detail.
They range from child pornography being sent over the Internet to attempts by criminals to lure children to meet in hotel rooms.
Many schools, libraries and parents have reacted by installing some sort of filtering software like SurfWatch or NetNanny. While these programs can certainly help, they have fundamental flaws. Filters generally key on certain “bad words” in Web sites and chat rooms, and of course kids are masters at inventing whole new vocabularies to skirt such limitations. On the flip side, filter programs may prevent access to legitimate sites, for example if a child happens to be doing a project on breast cancer research.
For a good, objective comparison of filtering programs and what they can and cannot do, have a look at www.GetNetWise.org.
Now, a totally new approach is on the horizon. A company called SilverTech
is promoting a kid-friendly intranet, a place where all Web sites are checked, and all chat rooms are monitored. The system uses end-to-end encryption and other advanced security features. El St. John is the founder of what she calls the eKids intranet (though the Web site is www.ekidsinternet.com.) She says kids have the right to surf in safety, and adults have an obligation to provide that safe environment. To make the system a reality, she’s enlisted support from industry giants like Cisco and Hewlett Packard. They chipped in equipment and other support, to the tune of US$15 million from HP alone.
To use the service, a parent registers a child or children and receives a special CD in the mail. This allows access to the closed intranet with pre-approved, supervised kid-oriented activities. Mothers, fathers, grandparents and even disabled people volunteer as chat room monitors.
“If a child uses bad language the adult monitor will call them out of the chat room,” according to El St. John. “They tell them that it scares the other kids when you use words like that. Then they’re let back in, but if they’re repeat offenders they can be banned for a month.” Parents have the ability, at any time, to override restrictions by typing in a password.
This is important to folks like the residents of Sexsmith, Alta., who really don’t want their town to disappear into the bit bucket of some filter program.
According to its Web page, the service costs US$12 per month. But El St.
John points out that the first six months are completely free, and after that, a child can earn another free six months by enrolling a friend. This process can be repeated indefinitely, and there are even on-line bulletin boards where kids who need a “friend” can get matched up.
Sure, it’s a kind of “viral marketing,” some might even say a pyramid scheme for kids. But the real question is what they do with the data (e.g. names, hometowns and
ages) that the site acquires. New legislation in the U.S. is designed to regulate firms and individuals that use the Internet to contact people under the age of 16. There are bans on building databases of children’s names and e-mail addresses without parental consent.
Of course, there are some serious flaws in the new law. How does a company really know if a person coming to their site is over or under 16? And what kind of evidence will constitute proof that the person giving consent is really a parent and
not a co-conspirator? In any case, El St. John assures everyone that her service is fully compliant with the new law.
Technologically, the eKids intranet is much more than a Web site. It’s really a communication network, which is why El St. John says she’s working with national governments, including Canada’s, to introduce it. She expects to be accepting membership requests in Canada and other countries soon, and claims that over a million U.S. families have already signed up. She says the site is advertisement free, and that it’s paid for by sponsors like Hewlett Packard, Cisco, Burbank Animation Studios and even the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Of course there is a payback for these companies, both in terms of goodwill and also through the market intelligence that they will gain. But El St. John is adamant that the information will only be provided in demographic groupings (e.g. “Six year olds in New York like this kind of music more than that kind”) and will not be traceable back to an individual.
There’s a deeper agenda at work here. SilverTech feels that if it can make the Internet safe for kids, they can do the same for hospitals, lawyers and medical offices. The encryption and other heavy-duty security features start to make a lot more sense when viewed as an “industrial strength” technology for business applications. Of course, many companies are already using intranets, and virtual private networks, but this system would be far easier to implement. Even a child can use it.
How this idea will fare in the rough-and-tumble commercial sector is anybody’s guess. But if it protects just one kid from an Internet predator, it will be money well spent.
Dr. Keenan, ISP, is Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary and teaches a course called Hot Issues in Computer Security.