Saturday, May 25, 2013

Family Safety Against Malware and Media Abuse


When a dear friend of mine recently started a study aimed at equipping parents with information on how to safely raise their children in this increasingly electronically-dependent society, I felt compelled to put together a short, informative article to highlight the most important protective steps parents can take to safeguard their children. It seems kids are all distancing themselves from their parents' sense of common decency at an alarming rate nowadays, due in large part to the proliferation of social media and our nation's increasing acceptance of the most controversial types of lifestyles! As a parent, you may not want to allow this at home, and keeping even the adults at home accountable on the web may be as high a concern as protecting your
children online.

In this article, please keep in mind that the following labels/terms for electronic devices/services may be used interchangeably:


  • Internet, web, network
  • Cell phones, smartphones, handheld devices, wireless devices
  • Tablets, hand-held devices, wireless devices
  • Laptops, PCs, computers, wireless devices
  • Game systems, gaming consoles, wireless devices
  • TV, entertainment or mass media, broadcast or streaming service

Fighting for your family's safety on the Internet and mass media is a complex battle that requires a well-coordinated, strategic plan of action. Your enemy is the multitude of commercial and private entities seeking to gain unauthorized access to:

  • Your personal information (e.g., social security number, birthdate, etc.)
  • Your assets (your bank accounts, or even just your computer, tablet or smartphone's compute cycles, i.e., to clandestinely reprogram your unit to become a bouncing board for illegal activity)
  • Your services (e.g., e-mail accounts, websites, social media, etc.)
  • Your loved ones (i.e., to lure your children out of the house, or to seduce a husband through porn, etc.)

Collectively, the software used by the enemy to corrupt our families and our assets is called "malware." As far as the mass media goes (in which I include TV and the various broadcast and streaming services proliferating today, such as Netflix, Hulu, and Pandora), unrated or underrated worldly and secular programming often undercuts the morals and values we're trying to instill at home. However, neither suggestive video content nor computer malware is always the source of our troubles when we're fighting for our family's safety--because sometimes the attack does not come from the outside in, but from the inside out. Your own children or even the adults in the home may be innocently or not-so-innocently led to seek out the undesirable content themselves. They may unwittingly be the ones who sabotage your electronic security defenses, your assets, your family's innocence and purity, or worse: your very lives! Let's face it: our real problem lies in whether we have helped our children and those with whom we live to make righteous choices that lead to a healthy lifestyle. In a world where few if any socio-political platforms are generally accepted and anything goes, defining what a "healthy lifestyle" actually means and determining the right parental choices to lead a child into such a healthy lifestyle seems overwhelmingly difficult. Difficult unless, of course, you are arriving at this juncture of your life already certain of what you stand for and what "family safety" really means. This is the territory where leftist or right-wing agendas simmer, and the proving grounds for those who claim to live by higher standards, such as Christians (right-wing) or atheists (left-wing). But that is another story!

To protect against Internet and mass media intruders and their potential for sabotaging our children's innocence and our teenagers' purity, you'll need to cover all the bases:
  • Laptop and personal computer access to the Internet
  • Tablet and handheld device access to wireless signals (WIFI)
  • Cell phone access to wireless signals (3G, 4G, WIFI)
  • Game system access to the Internet
  • The nature of TV and media content

Your primary weapons for tactical defense are:
  • Malware Prevention
    • Antivirus software for smartphones, handhelds, and PCs
    • Rogue software prevention, e.g., antiadware, antispamware and antispyware for computers
  • Safeguards Against Media Abuse
    • Family safety software-based Internet filters for all electronic devices
    • Software and hardware firewalls
    • Routers and managed switches with hardware-based web filters
    • Cell phone and wireless device monitoring software
    • Game system parental controls
    • TV and entertainment media rating systems

The purpose of this post is to bring awareness to the availability of defensive armor available to parents in the battle to maintain our families' sense of purity and dignity.  The discussion will follow the sequence of bullet points listed above and provide slightly more detail.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive explanation of how to set up parental controls on any device, but rather as an eye-opener for folks who knew little or nothing about these preventive measures already available in their own home. For more information, use your favorite Internet search engine and seek out web pages that go into further detail on the terminology I expose here, and go study the parental control products and features that seem most relevant to your situation. There are definitely more brands than I've mentioned here--and this is by no means a thorough review of the products I do mention--so I'd welcome your professional opinion and any other products you'd like to enter.

Malware Prevention

Malware includes, viruses, adware, spyware, and spamware. Guarding against these generally involves the use of their antidotes (antivirus software, antispyware, and antispamware.)

Antivirus Software

Viruses attach themselves to software and make it perform erratically or not at all. A virus can attack different areas of a computer or even an entire network, for which several categories have been labeled (e.g., worms, Trojans, boot sector viruses, etc.) Trustworthy brand names in the PC antivirus market include Microsoft Essentials, AVG Antivirus, and Avast Antivirus. Other good players in the antivirus market are McAfee, TrendMicro, Vipre, and Norton. The degree of effectiveness of their products varies also with their price; free or temporarily free (trial) versions of their programs are generally available and satisfactory for use, but with purchase of their software come additional enhancements such as firewall features, antispamware features, etc. Fortunately, you can obtain additional free software packages from other vendors to cover these needs separately. Some of the best antivirus programs are specialized to do just virus scanning and cleaning and nothing else. There are antivirus programs from Avast and AVG available also for smartphones and tablets, although their necessity is greatly overstated at this time. Not many viruses attack smartphones...yet.

Rogue Software (Spyware, Spamware, Adware)

As far as rogue software, there are loads of these on the Internet. They come in many forms. Spyware track your clicks in a web browser and monitor your online activity without your consent. Adware are programs that riddle your PC with pop-up ads and often underperform in their stated function if at all. People fall for them because they often use very official-looking on-screen prompts to lure in unwary users, with false claims that they can clean out a previously unknown viral infection on your PC for example. Thinking that their PC is actually infected with a virus,  people click the ads and install these pesky programs. Many times they're hard to get rid of. Spamware, finally, are programs that use your own e-mail address without your authorization to send out unsolicited e-mail we call spam. Some products designed to stop such rogue software are Windows Defender, Lavasoft Ad-Aware, and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware.

Safeguards Against Media Abuse

Safeguards against sabotage and Internet/media abuse include family safety programs for the PC, software and hardware firewalls to prevent attacks from hackers outside your network, and hardware designed to prevent or filter visits to rogue or indecent websites. Lastly, they include cell phone and portable device safeguards as well as TV and streaming media parental controls.


Family Safety PC Software 

Family safety software include Internet filters, the most illustrious of which is Microsoft's Live Essentials' Family Safety module. A competitor which has also received great ratings from PCWorld and other reviewers is AVG Family Safety. Another package is Norton Online Family. I personally prefer the Microsoft series. The purpose of these programs is to allow the parent to hold administrative rights over the PC, while handpicking what programs are allowed to run for the child users on the PC, what websites can be visited, etc. Very powerful. Very essential! And ultimately, much of the prevention of unwanted web page visits and unwanted software installs depends on your proper installation and configuration of these family safety products. A couple more safety products that deserve special mention are Google's SafeSearch Lock and YouTube's Safety Mode. Turning these features on is often on a per-browser/per-machine basis but it prevents access to explicit web content.

Software/Hardware Firewalls

A firewall is a method by which programmatic or user-initiated access to the Internet is filtered and also a means to thwart unwanted attempts to access your home's computers by hackers from the outside. Microsoft Windows brings its own Windows Firewall software, but you may also obtain additional or alternative firewall software from software manufacturers such as Avast, Norton, and ZoneAlarm. Also, many routers and managed switches bring firewall features that can supplement or replace software firewalls.

Hardware-Based Web Filters

Routers and managed switches are hardware boxes usually standing between your Internet Service Provider's modem and your PC. A router or managed switch can split the signal from the modem out to several PCs at a time, allowing for Internet connection sharing. But a smart router/managed switch can also be programmed to filter out unwanted websites when users inside your network attempt to visit them. This is instrumental if you want to prevent Internet abuse in your home. It can be an added level of protection beyond the use of software family filters. Web filtering can be an additional level of configuration beyond the use of a firewall feature. But it does not necessarily have to be done via a router; nowadays more advanced and more user-friendly Internet-based mechanisms such as OpenDNS are available to do just the same thing. These services somewhat take away the difficulty of setting up a router and understanding all the technical terminology related to web filtering and place it in a more centralized, easy to access, easy to read, and easy to follow website.

Cell-Phone and Wireless Device Monitoring

Finally, there are the more difficult devices to safeguard and monitor: cell phones, tablets, and other hand-held devices. Fortunately few viruses affect these devices, so viruses are generally not a serious issue here. The more serious concern with portable handheld devices, smartphones, tablets, and cell phones is the fact that these devices are portable and not easy to track if lost or to monitor if they're being misused. They run on completely different operating systems than PCs, and as a result have fewer or more complicated solutions to address the family safety problem. If you're trying to monitor a member of your household and prevent Internet misuse on a portable device, the best solutions are (in order of preference):
  • Abstinence (i.e., don't give them a cell phone at all!)
  • Give them a rudimentary cell phone that has no Internet access.
  • Open the cell phone account in your own name (not your kids'!) so you can track its usage yourself. NTelos Wireless, for between $11/mo - $15/mo for example, offers security tracking, curfews, SMS keyword monitoring alerts to help you keep track of what's being communicated through your children's cell phones. 
  • Give them a smartphone or tablet already preprogrammed to prevent rogue software or unauthorized contacts (such as the Nabi touchscreen tablet which comes with preloaded parental controls, or the Kurio touchscreen tablet)
  • If you have an existing portable device (phone or tablet) you wish to implement parental controls on, try downloading Zoodles for younger ages (available for Android). Zoodles is a virtually impregnable sandbox full of kid videos and games that will keep them entertained for hours while you're at the dentist office. Zoodles prevents the child from accessing areas of your phone you don't wish them to. Unfortunately, not all software and feature sets are available for all product lines. For example, Zoodles is easy to break out of on an Apple device. Apple products, Android products, and Windows Phone certainly have other features and apps available besides those listed here.
  • For older kids and for adults, you'll need tougher security. Android's App Lock helps lock out access to software unless a password is provided. The service CovenantEyes.com will filter all web activity (for an upfront fee) by replacing your cell phone or tablet's browser with a custom one that has monitoring capability so that an accountability partner can review your online behavior. A similar browser content filtering product for the iPhone is x3watch.com.

Game System Parental Controls

If you've got kids, you've probably heard about the ESRB by now. It's a rating system that provides helpful guidance about the content and age-appropriateness of games for the PC and gaming consoles. There are parental controls based on the ESRB on all new video game platforms, allowing you to block out unwanted content. Also, Internet access can be disabled and password protected on such video game consoles as the Nintendo Wii--which is by far the most child friendly game console on the market. Although parental control settings are also available on the XBOX and Playstation, keep in mind these game consoles are generally far too advanced for children and were already designed from the ground up with the indiscriminate teenage and adult game-player in mind. If you've already bought one of these, you'll want to screen closely what types of games and movies your family obtains for the console. Fortunately, the XBOX and Playstation do offer far more advanced parental controls than even the Wii. Whew! The XBOX appears to top out the parental control feature list, with Ratings and Content settings that let you restrict games and video content based on the content's rating, a Family Timer curfew feature that allows you to limit the time that your console can be used, and Xbox LIVE Access controls to allow you to limit connections to the Internet-based Xbox LIVE and even prevent Xbox LIVE membership creation without consent.

TV and Entertainment Media Ratings Systems

Believe it or not, there are families that do not own a TV by their own conscientious decision. It's too much of a liability if you're trying to raise children with pure minds! If you want to offer your family safe TV, may I suggest SkyAngel? It competes with DISH and DirectTV and Comcast and the other TV service providers, but limits its channels to those from Christian broadcasters and other less risky sources. Watching DVDs and Blu-rays? Take note of the ratings on the box.  For TVs, the V-chip is actually a means for a parent to place limits on what a kid can watch. A parent can program the TV with a rating, and the TV will block all shows above that rating. For example, if you program the TV-Y7 rating, the TV will allow your child to watch shows rated at TV-Y and TV-Y7. Shows with higher ratings will be blocked. Now as far as media streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, woefully inadequate parental controls have been put in place by each, consisting of kid zones that can be easily bypassed by a curious child and no form of program ratings monitoring or other safety controls. You'll definitely want to be present in the room everytime TV streaming services are used at home! Same must be said for audio/music streaming services such as Pandora.com, Spotify.com, and TuneIn.com radio. You've got to stay abreast of the artists your children are listening to and what lyrics they sing; these services provide no adequate means of controlling what your children hear. The best you can do is set up these services for them yourself if they're at a teachable age and expose them to good wholesome musical sources, like HisKidsRadio. The website NewReleaseTuesday.com can be a great tool to watch for up and coming worthwhile artists. Finally, if you frequent the theatre much, first visit PluggedIn.com for the latest family-friendly reviews on the movies.

Conclusion

If you are already under a viral attack and unable to clean out your PC using the software I've mentioned, you'll need a technician like myself. If Internet or streaming/broadcast media abuse is an issue at home, you may need to either 1) cancel the service in question, 2) hide the remote! 3) establish some solid means of accountability either by an honor system or by employing the provided safety controls for that service or device--or if that has proven to be fallible, then 4) obtaining the counsel of a Pastor for the entire family or seeking therapy with a trusted family psychologist might be in order (!)

Hopefully you've come away a bit more enlightened after this discussion. I hope more than that, that you're also coming away empowered to establish meaningful family safety measures to prevent future breaches or attacks in the home!

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