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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Imbee...Follow Up!!

Thanks to a very nice e-mail from someone at Imbee, I now have more of the inside scoop about their status.

First let me say that my last posting about Imbee was a little critical for two reasons, 1. I think they could be doing a better job keeping the interested public informed what's going on (why the delays?) and 2. I am anxious for Imbee to come back on the scene.  With all the stupid choices Facebook is making these days, we need more kid-friendly social networking sites to give kids safer alternatives.  Imbee was very cool...then it was I'd like to see it come back.

Here is some of the info in the e-mail I got last night from an Imbee employee.

"You are right in saying imbee was a great site, thank you. However, sadly in early 2008 our original founder passed away in a plane crash. After the tragedy, we had to shut our doors in mid 2009."

Apparently someone new bought them and once the once all the legal stuff got worked out, they started the wheels turning again.  She went on to say...

"... in February of this year initiated re-building imbee 2.0. We have had some unexpected delays as most complex websites as well as start up companies do. We are currently on our plan and are working hard to ensure the site up by the end of summer. We still have about 3 and a half weeks left of summer so stay tuned!"

So I'm staying tuned.  I want Imbee to be cool again and will keep you posted as to their progress.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Imbee...come on already!!

Since I have been itching to review Imbee, I signed up on their e-mail list so that I could be notified when they finally relaunch the site. (which used to be pretty cool) is supposed to be a kid-friendly alternative to Facebook and MySpace and is in the same genre of sites as (which I love).  Imbee seemed to be doing well and then suddenly a year or so ago, they disappeared from the web with no prior warning to their members. Their website claims a summer 2010 return.

I have gotten several e-mails from them in the past two months touting new, great features of Imbee, like the one I got yesterday:

"Dear imbee friends,

The hottest Dopest, Realest, most Epic Wrap-up ever just arrived on the internet today!
(by the way -- pathetic attempt to get street cred with the kids)

DREW is your one-stop shop for up to the minute pop culture news. Through the DREW news wire, you will be the first to know what’s happening in the world of entertainment and lifestyle. Story posts will include events, red carpet appearances, daily paparazzi roundups, and much more!

All DREW post will fall into one of the following catagories
(oh and "categories" is spelled c-a-t-E-g-o-r-i-e-s ....maybe they are the "dope - est"): Music, Film & TV, Events, Style, Technology and Sports.

Come check out DREW, we know you’ll love it!"

The problem is, when you go to to "check it out," there is no site.  Just a message saying Imbee will return summer 2010.  If I'm not mistaken, summer 2010 is almost over and still no Imbee. 

Perhaps Imbee should be spending less time crafting spelling-challenged e-mails and producing YouTube video commercials about how cool their site is going to be and more time ....oh, I don't know...actually GETTING THEIR SITE WORKING!!!  And change the message on the home page already.  Don't tell me it will be ready summer 2010 when that obviously isn't happening.

These Imbee guys are a puzzle to me.  Great site, going strong...disappears.  A year later, lots of effort around generating hype but no results.  I hope their content people are better than their marketing people.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Facebook GeoLocation -- Part 2

Apparently I wasn't the only one bashing Facebook's new geolocation service: "Facebook Places."  A recent article on CNN reflected a great deal of less than amicable feedback Facebook has been receiving about the service.  You can read that article here. Facebook's response was to call their critics (like me) idiots and claim that the criticism comes form a lack of understanding about how the service works.  They even had a press release explaining, to morons like myself, the finer details about how the service functions.  Thanks Facebook guys but, I'm not stupid, I know how the service works, and it's still a really bad idea for kids.

Facebook's defense of their new geolocation service is the same old defense they use whenever they add a new feature that is unpopular with the general public...."you don't have to use it."  Their explanation was that Facebook Places only reports a user's location if that user "check's in" by clicking a link on their page.  They went on to say that if parents are concerned about the feature they should tell their children not to use it.  Brilliant.  That will work.  Parents have been concerned for years about their children drinking and doing drugs...and for years they have been "telling their kids not to use it."  How well has that worked?

If you put a gadget on Facebook, kids are going to use it.  As I said in my last post about this topic, studies show that teenagers are drawn to and will use gadgets and widgets on sites like Facebook and MySpace, even if they aren't sure what they do.  The more gadgets the better.  A parent's request for a child not to use a feature isn't the solution.

What is the solution?  I would like to think that limiting the Facebook Places feature to adult accounts would solve this problem, but it wouldn't.  Kids will lie about their age to get onto Facebook as they have for years.  I would also hope that limiting the the service to Facebook mobile would solve it but kids with smartphones would still use it.

So what does a concerned parent do? As long as there are irresponsible companies like Facebook making dangerous toys for your kids, the only thing you can do is talk to them.  Explain why these features are a bad idea.  Explain the risks involved.  Set expectations and have consequences.  If your child has a Facebook page, insist that you have access to it.  Monitoring their page will reveal whether or not they are using gadgets like Facebook Places.  Also, tools like Norton Online Family should report such usage.

I still maintain that Facebook is no place for kids.  The company obviously cares little about privacy and safety for children and continues to make decisions that ignore these concepts.  There are other alternatives (like that give kids the same capabilities but in a safer environment without "sharp edges."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Long Term Danger of Social Media for Kids

Michael Schmidt, CEO of Google, said some very interesting things in an interview with the Wall Street Journal about long term risks associated with children using social media sites.  I would link you directly to the article on the WSJ website but since their public-facing website is one of the most non-intuitive sites in existence (I guess to inspire you to pay for their member-only website), I can't.  So here is a link to an article from BBC on the interview.

The gist of the interview was that our kids are living in a time when every thing they do online -- every word they write, every picture they post, every website they visit, every song or video they download -- could potentially be recorded and discovered later in life.  Mr. Schmidt theorizes that it may be the case in the future that young people have to legally change their names to hide their digital past from potential employers, future spouses, political rivals, etc.  Interesting idea and probably not that far-fetched.

Whenever we think of risks to kids online, we think of the usual stuff: cyber-bullies, sexual predators, pornography, hate propaganda, etc.  The parents and teachers I talk to on a regular basis don't bring up long term "reputation damage" as a risk they are concerned about.  Maybe they should be.

We've all heard the scenario in the news...a young, new school teacher is denied a job or even fired because of some pictures or video he/she posted online while they were in college.  Many employers who are trying to avoid the HR nightmare of hiring a "train wreck" will surf YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc. for social information about a candidate.  Those topless pictures from a party holding a beer in one hand and a bottle of tequila in another are probably not going to help young Jane land that first teaching job.

Let's look at some uncomfortable truths for a are on social media sites, kids make bad decisions sometimes, kids live in the moment, kids often don't consider long-term ramifications of their actions.  On my own Facebook page, I am friends with many of my younger cousins and children of my friends.  I often see collections of pictures or videos they post the day after a big party and am shocked that they would post such compromising content.  Last month, on my Facebook home page I saw a note that my friend's daughter (22 years old) posted pictures in a collection called "Frogfest 2010."  In that collection she had pictures of herself, passed out drunk, in various poses arranged by her friends.  She had obscene things written on her in some pictures, she was stripped nearly naked in others, and the coup de grace was her lying on the ground, topless, covered in her own vomit, with a whiskey bottle in her hand.  And the text below these pictures indicated she was proud of her accomplishments.  One tag was "don't tell me I don't know how to party."  Once those pictures are placed on Facebook, they are the property of the world.  Anyone can download them, post them on other social media sites, e-mail them to friends, etc.  And let's not forget that the pictures probably were taken by cell phones, not cameras (which is another avenue of transfer).  How will these pictures help this girl 3 years from now when she applies for a job as a kindergarten teacher at Virgin Mary Academy?

Think of these bad decisions as STD's (we'll call them social-media transmitted diseases as opposed to sexually transmitted diseases) because they behave much the same way.  A bad decision in a moment of excitement can have damaging, long-term affects on the rest of your child's life.  When your kids are old enough to have cell phones, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts, talk to them and explain the dangers.  They'll still make stupid choices but maybe you can help minimize the damage.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010 Article at AlmostSavvy

An e-mail from Tom H. asks "What do you know about"  Well Tom, I know that it is software that allows parents to monitor their childrens' social media sites (like Facebook) and I know they currently have commercials playing on the radio.  Other than that, I don't know much about it.  My only opinions about it so far are A.) It sounds like many of the services they charge you for you can get free from tools like Norton Online Family B.) Their board of directors are all advertisers or bill consolidators (which might suggest they are more interested in making money than in helping kids) C.) Their commercials are obviously preying on fear instead of delivering a positive message.

I was going to review SocialShield but my colleague Irene Koehler of did a fantastic job reviewing it, so I'll let you read hers. is a great resource for people trying to become familiar with social media sites, especially parents who are trying to understand the environment for their kids sake.

Here is a link to Irene's article and here is the actual article that she wrote:


Helping Kids Stay Safe Online. Is SocialShield the Answer?
Posted by Irene Koehler in Facebook, Social Media on June 18, 2010

As a parent, there have been many moments in my life when I considered locking my child in a closet. It would have been for her own safety, mind you. And, I would have let her out when she was, say, 30 or so. I realized that I might have had some legal entanglements to deal with along the way, but there were still those moments when I wondered “what if…”
It’s Scary Out There

Before you call the authorities to report me, there are two important things you should know:

   1. No, I never really did this – not even for a second. But, it is a scary world out there. I also never used one of those leash-things with my daughter, but I did come to understand why some parents choose to do so.
   2. My child is no longer a minor and perfectly able to manage her own life now. She somehow managed to make it through her formative years relatively unscathed, despite my occasional urges to save her from the outside world.

We all want to protect our children for as long as possible, yet we also want them to learn how to navigate the world on their own, making smart decisions along the way. How do we find that balance of holding on and letting go? It is already an enormous challenge in the real world. For many parents, the prospect of helping their children stay safe in the virtual world is even more overwhelming.

Enter SocialShield

If you are looking for a way to monitor your kid’s online browsing activity or chat/IM conversations, there are many easy tools which will allow you to do so. There are numerous keystroke-logging programs which record each word your child types on the keyboard, meaning you get to see everything – emails, passwords, the whole enchilada. These tools may let you know what your child is doing online, but tell you nothing about the identity of their friends or their friends’ activity. It is often this more meaty information that parents seek in order to prevent their children from falling prey to a bully or sexual predator.

Stating that their tools “give parents a 360° view of their kids’ social networking activities,” SocialShield has recently received quite a bit of media attention. After reading yesterday’s post on ReadWriteWeb about the new service, I decided to sign-up for the trial period and take it for a test drive.
Setting Up My SocialShield Account

SocialShield provides a free 14-day trial period. Like most services, this requires credit card information up front. Once the information was entered, I moved on to “Add a Child.” I wondered how they would be able to access my child’s information without knowing her password and how they would verify that it was indeed my own child I was adding. I was curious to see what would prevent me from monitoring a friend (or a stranger) by adding them to my account.
To add my daughter, I added all of her email addresses and selected “I attest that this is my daughter” from the drop-down list of choices. On the list are son/daughter, nephew/niece, grandson/granddaughter, other male/female. To test whether SocialShield magically knew if the person I was adding was really  my child (of course, it can’t know this), I decided to add another person. Not wanting to spy on a friend or a stranger, I chose the one person in that comfortable middle-ground. I selected “other – female” and added my mother, feeling fairly sure I wouldn’t uncover anything scandalous.

Once you’ve added a child, there it is front and center: you need your kid’s passwords. If you were looking for the secret door into your kid’s accounts without having access to their login credentials, this isn’t it (hint: it doesn’t exist). And, simply being Facebook friends with them isn’t enough to get you the information needed for SocialShield to do its thing and alert you to potentially problematic friends and activity. At this point in the process, you can either connect SocialShield to their accounts yourself if you know their usernames and passwords or you can generate an email which is sent to the child asking them to allow access.

This will then lead the child to add their accounts to SocialShield by using Facebook Connect, for example. I discussed this with my daughter ahead of time and she authorized access to her account herself.

My SocialShield Report

  • I received a number of alerts for my daughter’s Facebook account. SocialShield highlighted her Facebook friends who were “significantly older” and those who have “adultlike accounts.”
  • To take another look at how alerts were triggered, I also added myself to my SocialShield account. As I did with my mother, I selected “Other – female.” I received 12 pages of alerts for my own friends, most of which were triggered by “adultlike accounts.”
  • SocialShield was able to find and display 150+ photos of me from Facebook, yet was not able to find any of my daughter’s 700+ Facebook photos.
  • SocialShield alerted me to an update posted by one of my daughter’s friends on her Facebook wall because it included the word head. Of course, each parent needs to evaluate the context on their own. In this instance, her friend was referencing a song which “got stuck in” his head.
  • While I did not request that my mother authorize access to her accounts, SocialShield did tell me that she has (wait for it…) a MySpace account. Really? My mother, whose 75th birthday is this weekend, is on MySpace? After the laughter subsided, I went to MySpace to search for her. Searching for her name delivered no results. Searching for her email address delivered one result – a 24 year old male with Tom as his only MySpace friend. Something seems wonky here. It seems someone may have used her email address to set up an account and that SocialShield did a simple search for her email address without any way to verify her identity.

The Important Stuff: My Overall Impressions

Straight to the point, my high-level thoughts:
  • SocialShield and other monitoring tools are gaining traction because there is real risk out there in the online world. The concept is a solid one. Many parents want a quick and, for the less savvy parents, easy way to keep on eye on their kids’ activity.
  • There is no way to automate parenting. We cannot assign responsibility to software or an online service to do the hard work for us. Nothing replaces having an ongoing dialogue with our children about the world and how to make the right choices. (More on this to come in an upcoming post.)
  • While the concept may be solid, SocialShield’s execution needs quite a bit of work  (examples below).

Specific concerns (in no particular order):
  • One of the key points in the ReadWriteWeb article was the endorsement of the PTA. While I was able to find this information repeated on many other websites, I could not find anything about it on either the PTA or the SocialShield websites. If the endorsement is real, I would expect to be able to verify it easily.
  • The FAQ section should be much more robust. For example, when my results indicated “adultlike accounts” for a huge number of my own and my daughter’s friends, I naturally wanted to understand the meaning of this term. Nowhere on the site is this explained. Does this mean that these people have LinkedIn profiles (which usually means the person is an adult) or that they post porn to their Facebook accounts? I tweeted the question to SocialShield and received this reply: “An account like costco really should be only for adults, not kids. we may find someone who says he’s a kid has this=red flag. A red flag like that says there’s something wrong and you need to look deeper at that person or account. we look at more than fifty sites like this to see if we can find suspicious items.” I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Costco that triggered hundreds of my friends to be labeled as an “adultlike account,” but I get the idea. Either way, the triggers and definitions need to be explained in order to be useful to parents.
  • I think most adults don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes when granting access through Facebook Connect. It is entirely unreasonable to generate the email shown earlier, send it to a (presumably) young child, expect them to read/understand it and then walk through the Facebook Connect process. There is no way for the parent to know ahead of time what will be sent to the child.
  • Take the results with a big grain of salt. Given that SocialShield told me it could find no photos of my daughter on Facebook (despite the fact that there are over 700) and that it returned a false positive MySpace result for my mother leads me to question the accuracy of the report.

These are my initial impressions after using SocialShield for two days. In this time span, the report has shown no new activity even though both my daughter and I (and our friends) have been active online. Obviously, the tool is not intended for short-term use, so you may choose to try it on your own. I look forward to hearing your feedback and experience with this and other similar tools.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Facebook GeoLocation...Really?

 There was an article this morning on CNN's website about Facebook's new foray into geolocation.  You can read it here:

Geolocation is an emerging technology, especially among (but is not limited to) smartphones.  Simply put, geolocation tracks the geographical location of a user and reports it.  That information can then be used in a variety of ways - if I'm in a strange city looking for a restaurant, my smartphone can help me find one without much effort because it knows exactly where I am.  That's cool.  There are also apps that allow people to locate friends, recommend venues, and track family members, all based on their locations.  Even this blog uses geolocation: scroll down to the bottom of the screen and you will see that I am tracking the location of all my visitors.  Geolocation services can be useful in the right context.

So how will Facebook be using geolocation?  There has been no formal explanation yet.  In fact, though the reports of geolocation services are coming from anonymous Facebook insiders, the company has not commented on this feature to date.  Many experts think it will mimic the functionality of Foursquare.  Foursquare is a web and mobile application that allows registered users to connect with friends and update their location. If that is the case, then Facebook's geolocation will have the capability of reporting where a person is when they are logging in to Facebook.

My first question is why?  With all of the inane dribble that people post on Facebook, now we have to know where they are when they are posting it?  "Hey are pictures of my root canal and here is the exact location of my dentist."  I would guess that Facebook is looking to compete with the increasingly popular Foursquare (whose popularity is a mystery to me) in the mobile space.

My second question is, have they really thought this through?  I understand that this will probably be a service that members will choose whether or not to use.  But the availability of it to children is concerning.  Kids' don't always think things through.  Kids also love new widgets and gizmos and studies show that kids will add new features to their Facebook page without even knowing what they do.  Here is a tool that reports a child's exact location any time they log into Facebook - their home, their friend's houses, their you see what I'm saying?  Talk about making it easy for sexual predators.  The "choice" about whether or not to use this service doesn't make it any safer.  Kids' don't always make the best choices.

I view this as another reason why parents should think twice before letting their kids join Facebook and another reason why parents should constantly be involved with their kids' Facebook lives.

After Facebook's pathetic attempt to put up a "safety" smokescreen with their partnership with CEOP (read about it here), they add a feature like this?  One step sideways, two steps back.  You should be convinced by now that your child's safety is definitely NOT something Facebook cares about and you should react accordingly knowing your children are using Facebook.

The best analogy I can come up with about Facebook is this... If I told you that someone was building a brand new amusement park down the road that ignored every known best practice and precaution for safety, would you let your kids go there?  Would you, at the very least, accompany your child when they visited?  My growing disdain for Facebook's complete indifference over child safety alone tells me to not trust them.  This latest feature is just another step toward a complete lack of privacy online.  If adults want to make that choice, so be it.  But the option shouldn't be available to kids.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dispelling Some Myths about Private Browsing

In doing my research for my last article, I came across several forums and blog postings that discussed the dangers of private browsing.  Though I think it's great whenever awareness is raised, I discovered that many of these "credible" sources are falling short of their responsibility to ensure their information is accurate (which bugs me).

The latest versions of Internet Explorer and Firefox have a feature called "private browsing."  In Internet Explorer, it's called "InPrivate" browsing and in Firefox it's just called "Private" browsing.  In both cases it can be turned on or off from the Tools menu.  With private browsing enabled, the browser no longer records which sites that it visits.  You won't find record in your browser history, in the cookies folder, or even in the URL drop-down.  It's a feature that was invented to keep people from getting in trouble at work by visiting non-work related sites.  It's also widely used by kids to hide their tracks from their parents and teachers.  It is definitely a feature that parents should be concerned about and I don't want to detract from that concern with this posting.

The incorrect information that I have seen scattered about the Internet is that private browsing is a way that kids can defeat tools like NetNanny, CyberSitter, K9 Web, McAfee Family Protection, and Norton Online Family.  The myth is that if a child enables private browsing, then these parental control applications can no longer detect the sites the child visits. WRONG.  Enabling private browsing doesn't mask the sites that the browser accesses, it merely prevents the site details from being logged by the computer.  The site's URL and content are still examined by parental control software before it is allowed to open in the browser.  Therefore, objectionable sites on your blocked list are still recognized and blocked.  And even if they did get through by some freak circumstance, just because IE or Firefox doesn't log the visit with private browsing turned on, doesn't mean your parental control software is ignoring it in its log (so you will still see it listed).

I tested this extensively for all of the products I listed above and not once could I circumvent the parental control settings by enabling private browsing.  If you have one of these products, rest easy.  As long as they are configured correctly private browsing is no threat.

Norton Online Family

Those of you that follow this blog have read my reviews of products like K9 Web and McAfee Family Protection.  Symantec (Norton) also has a product in this space and I thought I'd take a moment to give you some info about it.

I have known about this product since it was introduced in February of 2009 but haven't had the time to really dive into it until now.  Two weeks ago I installed it on one of my test machines and began banging away on it.  For a free product, I'm pretty happy with the results.

Norton describes the primary function of this tool as providing insight to parents on their childrens' online activity and actionable tools to control that activity once they understand it.  That's a good foundation to build on.  One of the big problems with many of the big parental control software packages is that there are literally hundreds of  different settings you could configure but the question is always, "how do I set this up to work best for my family?"  Every family is different, every child uses the Internet differently, so a tool that first figures out your kids' online habits is off to a good start.

Norton Online Family provides the following:
  • Web monitoring and blocking
  • Configurable time limits for Internet access
  • Social network monitoring
  • Chat monitoring
  • Search monitoring
  • Customizable alerts that can be set up to contact you via e-mail or on your mobile device
The software is a "cloud" product (as in "cloud computing"), meaning the bulk of the application is handled by Norton's servers not your machine.  In fact, the installation onto your machine is very small.  It was very easy to install and setup (took me about 6 minutes, end-to-end).  Once installed, it asks you to set up accounts for each of your children, specifying their ages and genders as you do.  After you have the accounts set up, you can select from a generic/default configuration for filtering/monitoring, or you are free to customize the settings for each child.  The default filter levels were very comprehensive and I couldn't get much past them.  And in the rare case that I could get around them, the breech was recorded in the log and I could easily add the offending site to the block list.

Feature by feature the product worked as I hoped it would.  It has the same strengths that you see in K9 Web and many of the same weaknesses that McAfee Family Protection struggles with.  The monitoring tools work well, the default filter levels are comprehensive, the customizable alerts were a little slow (I got a message about my attempted access to about 15 minutes after I tried it) but worked as expected.  Like McAfee Family, it filtered some of the major chat and IM sites but not all (though, like McAfee Family, you could add the sites it can't handle to the blocked list), it doesn't control messaging in online gaming, It is limited to the major browsers (IE and Firefox - though it did work with Safari to my surprise) and it makes no attempt to block webcam access (in fact, you have no program by program access control like McAfee Family offers). 

Given these limitations, you may be wondering why I didn't give it as rough of a review as I did McAfee Family...because Norton Online Family is FREE.  If I am going to pay for something (like McAfee Family) then it better live up to my expectations.  Norton Online Family exceeded my expectations for a free product.

Overall, I would definitely recommend it to parents.  It's a great tool with great features and for the cost, you can't beat it.  On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give it a solid 7.

Here is the link to the site:

And in the interest of heading off the questions before they come in, no, you do not need to be running Norton's antivirus software to use this and yes, it will work with any antivirus software product.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Apple iPhone 4 - Two Things Parents Should be Worried About

I was at a restaurant last week and saw a 13ish year old girl with Apple's latest iPhone, the iPhone 4.  Not sure what parents are dropping that kind of money for a kid's phone but obviously someone is. There are several cool new features on the iPhone 4 but unfortunately, anytime a new technology is introduced into the mainstream, some creep is out there inventing ways to pollute it.

Worry #1

The AP released an article today titled Adult industry sees iPorn potential in new phoneYou can read the article here.  In summary it talks about iPhone 4's new videoconferencing feature called FaceTime and how several porn companies have already created pornography related services for it.  The iPhone 4 has two cameras, one forward-facing and one backward-facing.  The backward-facing phone allows you to use your iPhone to make video calls, allowing the recipient to see your face and if they have an iPhone 4, you can see theirs.  Porn companies are seeing this capability as a golden opportunity to take the "1-900" concept to a new level, providing video conferencing phone sex (obviously for a per-minute fee).

Of course this revelation gives Apple heartburn since they have removed all offensive content from iTunes.  Steve Jobs was quoted as saying "it is Apples mission to keep the iPhone free from pornography."  I've blogged about it in the past and I think it's admirable that they put forth the effort.  So you might ask, why doesn't Apple stop this new FaceTime porn?  They can't.  Using FaceTime is no different than making a regular phone call.  Apple can't block you from calling certain numbers on your phone and that's really what you would be doing if you used FaceTime to access one of these new porn services.  You're just making a phone call and turning on your camera (as is your recipient).

Undoubtedly, this new avenue to pornography is concerning but it's not Apple's fault nor is it their responsibility to control.  I also think (and this might shock you) that the pornography itself isn't the greatest risk here.  The greater risk is in how FaceTime works.  I won't bore you with the technical details of how FaceTime functions, but know this:  In order for you to use FaceTime with another person (including a porn service) they need to have your personal cell phone number AND, in order for them to use it in this fashion, you have to give them permission.  Think about that...some sleazy porn company gets your personal phone number and your permission to use your phone number for their own purposes.  Great idea.  How long will it be before they start calling you and charging you $9.99 per minute for it?  I've also read that some of these services won't be requiring a credit card to join and that for your "convenience" they will just add the charge to your next AT&T bill.  At least the credit card thing will help keep some kids away but not the automatic billing.

What should a responsible parent do?  Again, my first question is...does your teenager really need a $400 iPhone?  That being said, if they must have one, talk to them and remind them that since you pay the bills, you will discover the use of such a service.  Then watch your credit card and AT&T bill for strange charges.

Worry #2

It was announced last week that there is already a "jailbreak" available for iPhone 4.  What is a jailbreak?  The iPhone is built to only download apps and content from iTunes.  From the manufacturer, the iPhone does not have the capability to access apps or content from any other site.  A jailbreak is a program that unlocks the iPhone, allowing it to download apps from a multitude of other sites, many of them geared toward porn or illegal purposes (like providing viruses for you to send to your enemy's phones).  Between iTunes policies against offensive content and products like the Mobicip safe browser for the iPhone, it is very difficult for children to access bad stuff with the iPhone.  But if they jailbreak the iPhone they have opened the door to an entire world of bad things, including apps that can undermine every parental control you have installed on their device.

Here is the scariest part.  Kids can run a jailbreak extremely easily.  By visiting a site that hosts such programs with the iPhone, a kid can run a jailbreak with a single touch of a button.  Most jailbreak's are free and none of them require proof of age to run. 

Also, I have to mention that many iPhones have been ruined by idiots downloading an "underground" app after a jailbreak, only to find that it hides a virus that fries the phone.  There have also been cases where people have written underground apps that seem to be one thing (like porn) but are really collecting all of your personal info from your phone and sending it to some unsavory character.  Underground apps are a really bad idea because the creators of them are accountable to no one.

What can a responsible parent do?  This one is tough.  Unless you are savvy enough to monitor the sites your kid visits from his/her iPhone, you are out of luck.  If you do look at your child's Internet history on their iPhone, look for websites with the word "jailbreak" in the title.  I won't list specific site addresses here because I don't want to enable any devious kids who might be reading.  Other than that, there really isn't much you can do but check your child's phone for offensive apps.  If you see something related to pornography or illegal activities, they probably have jailbreaked phone (I know, bad English but that's the official term).

You could also explain to them that a jailbreaked phone is very susceptible to damage via viruses and that if their iPhone is ruined as a result, you will not be replacing it.  That might motivate them.

Almost Disaster - A Brush with a Sexual Predator

Got a call over the weekend from a friend in Montana who I haven't talked to in ages.  After our initial "haven't talked to you in a while..." chit chat he told me the real reason he was calling.  His 16 year old daughter had been getting very bizarre and inappropriate messages in a chat room from a guy who called himself "Travis."  The conversation ended when Travis sent pictures of his genitalia to the girl and she told her Mom about it.

As an occasional reader of my blog, my friend remembered an article I posted last year about the skill of some of these predators and asked if I could re-post it to help him spread the word.  So here it is.



Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Mind of a Sexual Predator

A friend of mine is a post-doctoral student in child psychology at Indiana University.  Knowing that I regularly speak about online safety for children, she sent me an excerpt from a study of convicted online sexual predators that she and a team of researchers were working on. The study itself was horrifying, but what struck me as particularly disturbing was the transcript of an actual chat room conversation between a sexual predator and his 14 year old female prey.

Here's some background.  The chatroom in question was one of the more popular teem chatrooms online.  To avoid lawsuits, I'll omit the name of the site (not that it matters - it could have happened at any of them).  As I said, the potential victim was a 14 year old girl - good student, active in school, soccer player, very popular.  The predator was a 37 year old male, recently unemployed from a snack vending company, posing as a 15 year old boy.

The conversation I am going to show you was originally comprised largely of textspeak - the online shorthand kids use to text and chat online.  It has been translated to standard English so you don't have to spend time looking things up.  What is also included in the transcript of the conversation are notes about the tactics that the predator admitted to using at various points in the conversation.  The lines written by the child are denoted with a letter C and the lines written by the predator with a letter P.  Ingenious and chilling at the same time.  I will reveal the outcome of this situation after the transcript.

[the predator admitted spending 3 days monitoring a particular chatroom to get a feel for the conversations and the topics kids were discussing.  During that time he had two browser windows with the chatroom and one with Google where he would research the topics the kids brought up so he could sound like he knew what he was talking about]

C:  ...Kevin Jonas is the hottest
P: Oh my god he is gay!
C: He is not.  How can you say that?  He has a girlfriend.
P: So.  Still gay
C: You would know.  Are you gay too?
P: No.  I just think he acts gay.

[predator did a search on Yahoo Answers to find out who the most popular bands with teens are.]

P: Panic At the Disco is way better
C: Oh my god, I love them.

[predator does a search to find out the most recent time they performed]

P: I got to see them at the Hard Rock in Vegas
C: Shut up. You did not
P: Did too.  Went with parents in July and we stayed at Hard Rock.
C: Were they awesome?
P: Unbelievable

[predator downloads a video clip of the show from the internet and forwards it as a video message to his cell phone]

P: I recorded part of it on my phone
C: You can get busted for that
P: They didn't catch me.  I'm sly :-o
P:  It's even awesome on my ghetto video
C: I want to see it
P: I'll send it to you.  What's your number?
C:  I'm not giving you my number.  You might be a stalker ;-)
P: I'm just going to send you the video. Besides, you will know my number and then you never have to answer if I call.
C: True.  It's xxx-xxx-xxxx

[Predator looks up the area code online.  Then predator sends the video clip]

P: Did you get it?
C: Yes
P: You're from St. Louis?  Oh my god I was just there visiting my uncle.
C: Really, where?

[predator uses Google maps to find a neighborhood in the suburbs of St. Louis]

P: Webster Groves
C: Oh my god that's like two minutes from me
P: Where do you live?
C: Kirkwood

[predator Googles the schools in Kirkwood]

P:  Do you go to xxx high school?
C: Yes, how did you know?

At this point the child had to leave the chatroom to go to soccer practice.  On the way to practice she started talking to her mother about the conversation.  Her mother immediately became concerned and contacted the police.  With the girls cooperation, the police went back to the chatroom and posed as her.  The predator monitored the chatroom continuously until he saw her ID return and instantly engaged.  After another hour of conversation, the predator had arranged a meeting with the child (actually the police) and one week later was apprehended by police while trying to meet with the 14 year old girl.

The scariest part about this...I can see how almost any child might be tricked into revealing personal information like this child did.  Talk to your kids!