For parents who fret that their little darlings might be straying into the seedier corners of cyberspace, a Berkeley company introduced a product last week that is designed to monitor children's habits on the Internet.
The product, called Prudence, has already sparked a debate between its creators and cyber activists over whether the software is a tool for responsible parenting or insidious snooping.
"I think it's creepy and that spying on your kids is terrible," said Mike Godwin, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization known for its battles against online censorship.
But John Barrows, co-owner of the company that created the product, said it is designed to give parents an alternative to popular but restrictive "blocking" software such as CyberPatrol and NetNanny.
Unlike those products, which prevent users from accessing sites deemed offensive, Prudence merely keeps a log of the Web sites visited from any computer on which the software is installed.
No sites are off-limits, but the program produces records that parents can review, and it even stores copies of the pictures that have been viewed.
"I don't mean for this to be a secret way of spying on kids," said Barrows, whose company is called Blue Wolf Network. "We think parents should tell the child they're going to be monitored and use the system as a deterrent."
Still, the product is designed so that it can be used surreptitiously. There are no visible signs when it is active, the program's file names are disguised, and the reports it produces are encrypted. The program will even send e-mail copies of the reports to parents while they are at work.
"Parents can use this any way they see fit," Barrows said. "I'd rather that the kids know, but that's not my business."
The product is the first of its kind to be marketed to parents of young children, although there are similar products used by corporations to track their employees' online activities.
Two-year-old Blue Wolf Network is a tiny company best known for a program called Emily that reads e-mail in a computer-generated voice, a product that Barrows said is widely used by people with impaired vision.
Barrows said Prudence can be downloaded for a free 15-day trial at http://www.download.com and can be purchased for $39.95 at http://www.buydirect.com. Both sites are operated by CNet, a San Francisco online services company.