May 1, 2006
Online Safety for Kids a Thriving US Business
By Sue Zeidler
LOS ANGELES -- Keeping kids safe on the Internet is not only a big concern, it's big business.
Companies are popping up or tweaking existing products to meet growing demand for Internet safety.
And at a meeting in June, nonprofit cyberwatch group WiredSafety will bring together social Web sites like News Corp.'s MySpace with technology giants Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. to develop ways to keep kids safe online.
With online predators on the prowl, teens often make themselves targets by sharing personal details on popular social network sites such as www.MySpace.com, www.facebook.com and www.xanga.com.
Law enforcement officials are urging parents to use blog search engines like www.feedster.com and www.pubsub.com, normally used by companies to track their products, to monitor kids' names in Cyberspace.
It's a new twist on old technology.
"It's happening more and more and I find it quite curious," said Bob Wyman, chief technology officer for New York-based PubSub Concepts Inc. "We're mostly used for business intelligence, but people are worried about their kids and private information like social security numbers and they've started monitoring the Web for these personal reasons."
A PLETHORA OF PRODUCTS
Various software packages sold at www.software4parents.com let parents block certain sites and objectionable material and even monitor kids' Web surfing from work. Some send e-mails to parents' computers at regular intervals that include snapshots of Web sites visited or strings of e-mail chatter.
Spector Pro, by SpectorSoft, for instance, records e-mails, chats and instant messaging, providing the equivalent of a digital surveillance tape for parents to see the exact sequence of what family members are doing on the computer.
"Our products evolve over time to record more types of activities and to make it easier for parents to find and identify inappropriate or unusual behavior. In the case of MySpace, we are currently adding features to make it easy to identify when a child posts pictures on the site," SpectorSoft President Doug Fowler said.
Online safety advocates like WiredSafety, however, believe such "spy" software should be used as a last resort.
"It doesn't foster a lot of trust between parents and kids, but there are some cases where a lot of trust is not warranted," said Allan Kush, a deputy executive director for WiredSafety.
"Many parents want a magic bullet to keep their kids safe, but kids can usually find a way around this parental control software," said Kush. "In protecting kids, the key element is education and getting parents involved."
Nonprofit group I-Safe Inc. also stresses education and parental participation.
"Our goal is to encourage teens to modify their own personal habits online and become a major force in making the Internet a safer place," said Teri Schroeder, president of i-Safe America.
The group hosted an online safety forum in Los Angeles on April 28 for students, attended by Microsoft and various big players in the entertainment industry.
Additionally, i-Safe and Web security firm VeriSign Inc. have created a Digital Credential Program called i-STIK that reduces students' vulnerability by giving them a unique digital credential for surfing the Web.
The credential, in the form of a small USB token that is plugged into a computer, enables kids to enter a chat room confident that everyone logged in will be whoever he or she claims to be. Schroeder said she hopes to distribute the program nationally soon.
A search engine, netTrekker, is used by kids in 11,000 schools in 48 states and has just been made available for home.
Created by educators, netTrekker eliminates all links to any pornographic, offensive, useless or commercial sites.
And in another new twist, several companies are using the Web to help parents to keep tabs on kids in the physical world.
LOCATION TRACKING, PRIVACY CONCERNS
Sprint Nextel Corp., the No. 3 U.S. mobile service, recently introduced a wireless service that lets parents look at maps on their cell phones or on the Web to locate their children who also carry mobile phones.
Parents can also program the service to automatically send them text messages at specific times each day to confirm that their children have arrived at home or in school.
Walt Disney Co., which is renting space on Sprint's network to sell services under its own brand, also plans to go after the family market with services such as location tracking similar to that offered by Sprint.
Some privacy advocates have criticized these tracking devices saying it can be abused. Schroeder also said they carry risk.
"They can be a blessing and a curse. From a parental perspective, it's a great tool, but if these things get into the wrong hands, you could give fuel to stalkers," said Schroeder.