Wednesday, July 28, 2010
McAfee Family Protection 2010 Review
In 2009, McAfee added a product called Family Protection to their suite of security tools. This product is strictly a parental control product that allows parents to monitor and filter the online content that their children access. It is not an anti-virus/anti-malware product (nor was it advertised to be) so don't make the mistake of installing this and thinking it's going to completely protect your computer. It won't and wasn't designed for that. What it will do...or should I say what it claims to do, is allow parents to monitor the websites, instant messaging, chats, and e-mail that their children are visiting, set up filters to block objectionable content, set time limits as to when children can access the Internet, and helps parents prevent kids from sharing personal information.
I really wanted to like this product when it came out. It was a great idea and I'm a fan of McAfee because I am familiar with their genuine efforts to help people and advance the cause of Internet safety. Sure they make money from Internet safety but they also do a good amount of pro bono work raising awareness, especially in area of child protection. I have been impressed with them numerous times in the past.
I downloaded the latest version of product (Family Protection 2010), installed it on a machine, and spent the next few weeks testing it out. I was actually surprised at it's shortcomings. McAfee usually "gets it" but it seems like this product was something they rushed out the door without thinking it through. It missed the mark on some important features AND they seemed to use an underhanded marketing ploy to sell it (I'm not sure if that was McAfee's fault or the online retailers), boldly proclaiming that it helps parents mitigate threats from cyber-bullying, communication with strangers, and posting confidential information; and then in the fine print saying "as long as you block social networking sites where these activities can happen". Come on! I can mitigate those threats by switching my computer off, but computer manufacturers don't sell that as a feature of the off switch.
Here is my experience with it:
It took me three tries to install it on my Windows 7 machine. Twice it hung in the middle of the installation process (I waited 2 hours on it and nothing) and the third time it told me that I had to close Firefox (which wasn't open) and after closing that message box 3 or 4 times it finally worked. Once I got it installed I started poking around. Windows 7 seemed to stumble on the different accounts I set up in the software, requiring multiple login attempts before I could get each account to work. After about 20 minutes of fiddling with it, it seemed to start working correctly.
It's easy enough to use - very user friendly. It didn't take much time or tech savvy to feel comfortable navigating around the interface. Basically it works by setting up accounts for each family member and then determining the limitations of each account. Great concept. I set up a few test accounts and configured them for different levels of filtering and monitoring. At first it seemed like it was working very well. It blocked the sites I told it to block for each account, it recorded an AOL chat, it allowed me to see what I had done on Facebook in one of the accounts. It was highly configurable and flexible. Very cool.
Then I did what any mildly competent kid would do: I Googled ways to beat the tool. First thing that came up...the software only works if your kids are using Internet Explorer or Firefox. Google's new "Chrome" browser is completely uninhibited by the limits set up in the software. You may or may not have heard of Chrome but it is a freely available and increasingly popular browser that millions of people are using worldwide. I downloaded Chrome to my test machine and sure enough, I was able to go to any site I wanted to despite the limits set up in Family Protection. I wonder how McAfee missed that?!? It also doesn't work with Safari - Apple's free browser that installs when you update your iTunes (in fact, you have to uncheck the Safari checkbox when you update iTunes if you don't want Safari). Yes you can block access to Chrome and Safari altogether with the software but come on, that's a cop out (that's like making tires that only drive on asphalt and not gravel, dirt, or concrete).
Instant messaging was also something that came up on my Google search. Apparently the tool only allowed parents to control chats on AOL, Yahoo, MSN, and ICQ. Any other Instant messaging service was immune to the product and allowed kids to do/say whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted. Using the IM feature in Skype, I was free to spew obscenities to complete strangers (not that I actually did that).
At this point I was remembering that scene from the movie Independence Day when the oddball director of research on the alien craft said "we've been down here 15 years...as you can imagine, they don't let us out much." Are the McAfee designers secluded in some underground lab with no access to the real world? In our online society right now there are 4 popular browsers and about 15 different instant messaging services. McAfee chooses to address only half the browsers and a fourth of the IM. I should also note that the product claims to provide control over webcam access but in truth it only provides such control if your webcams are being used via one of the instant messaging services it knows about OR if you just block the webcam software altogether (again...cop out).
My next investigation was into something else kids would do...online gaming. I was playing a variety of online games through the product and on some games (like Warcraft and a few other multiplayer games) it would randomly drop the connection. I know this isn't a big deal to parents but think about this: The more frustrated your child gets with the product, the more motivated he/she will be to seek out workarounds.
Another complaint I will add is not my own, but that of a coworker who owns the product. His installation process failed miserably and he had to call McAfee's tech support. According to him the tech support experience was a nightmare. He invested over 6 hours of time to resolve his issue - that issue being that the product wouldn't install correctly if you have AVG (free antivirus software) installed. His take away was that you probably better have some McAfee product as your primary antivirus software or you are wasting your money buying Family Protection 2010.
Ok McAfee...come on! This product has some real potential and a few features (like YouTube filtering) that are super cool. You need to put some more time and thought into this tool before you rush it out to retail. You've earned a better reputation than this with your other products and families deserve better. I'm a big fan of your company and I know you can improve this product. Let's see it.