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Keeping Kids Online in Line

Parents are buying software to monitor usage, but experts question whether programs harm more than help.

March 29, 2001|DAVID COLKER | david.colker@latimes.com

Until he accidentally caught a glimpse of sexually explicit messages on his home computer screen, Bob Watkins didn't think of himself as the kind of guy who would spy on his 13-year-old stepdaughter.

But, alarmed, Watkins the next day installed software that secretly recorded his stepdaughter's every move online. After she went to bed, he looked through that day's online correspondence. What he found turned his stomach: His honor-student stepdaughter was having a sexual relationship with her 37-year-old music teacher.

Monitoring software--which can secretly record all Web sites visited, every chat message and all e-mails--is the latest electronic tool used by parents and spouses to track online activities. Its use brings up contentious issues concerning privacy and trust. Kids are vulnerable online, but privacy advocates warn that parents should think long and hard before they undermine the trust of their children.

Watkins, though, wishes he had installed the software sooner and possibly headed off an affair he called purely predatory. In the end, the teacher was sentenced to a year of probation and banned from ever teaching again.

"Maybe there was a time in the past when we didn't have to monitor the activities of a child so closely," said Watkins, a salesman in Memphis, Tenn. "But we owe them the chance to grow up without having to be confronted by certain people."

So-called spy software has been used for many years by companies to track employee computer use, but software developers have recently been producing home versions. Watkins used a program called Spector--others available include the more blatantly named iamBigBrother, FamilyCam, MoM, Keynab, Sentrycam and Spysoft.

They generally use one of two methods, or a combination of both, to record a computer's activities. One method takes electronic snapshots at regular intervals of whatever appears on the computer screen--a parent can later flip through the images, looking for questionable activities. The second way logs all the keystrokes for later review.

The programs can be set to work secretly in the background without computer users knowing they are being monitored.

Filtering software that attempts to block sexually oriented Web sites from being viewed is commonly used by schools, libraries and other institutions as well as parents. But these programs have proved to be problematic. They don't block all inappropriate sites and occasionally cut off access to acceptable sites that happen to mention potentially objectionable keywords such as sexuality. Also, they have limited ability to control messaging and e-mail.

Monitoring software is instead more like a video camera that constantly, silently watches a computer user. Still, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit group that advocates for privacy issues, does not uniformly oppose parents' use of monitoring software.

"I think it's going to vary from family to family and obviously with the age of the child," said David Sobel, general counsel for the center. "I'm not prepared to say these systems are always inappropriate. But I think a parent needs to give it a lot of thought and not use these programs just as a substitute for real supervision."

Warren Williams, 33, a software programmer on Long Island, N.Y., created iamBigBrother three years ago after seeing a television program describe how intruders tricked children into letting them into the house. "I started to think about safety programs for computers," Williams said.

He had no qualms about calling his program "Big Brother," despite that name's negative connotations. "It didn't hurt our business," Williams said. About 20,000 copies of the software have been sold over the Internet, he said, at $29.99 for the download version and $34.99 for the CD-ROM.

Williams created a separate commercial program not likely to be as beloved by home users. The program, called Lootster, is used by junk e-mailers to target America Online subscribers according to what's in their personal profiles. "I don't want to mention that one," he said.

Dan Boaen of Denver bought iamBigBrother to keep tabs on his 13-year-old daughter.

"About three weeks after I got it, she was chatting with a guy and they were talking about skipping school, going drinking and having a party at a friend's house when the parents were out of town," Boaen said.

He confronted her, pretending he had overheard her talking about some plans she had, and she backed off. "You want to trust them, but sometimes they can't trust themselves," he said. Dennis Eldridge of Carrollton, Texas, used Spector to catch his 14-year-old son's visit to a pornographic Web site.

"He had some class project to look up a particular site, and a friend of his told him that if he misspelled it he would get into this other site," Eldridge said. "I confronted him and took away his Internet account for a couple of weeks."

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