Wrangler Stranger Daner

Wrangling Stranger Danger

Stay aware with this software

Ah, summer—the season of youth! If you’re under a certain age, this is the carefree, barefooted time of year made for swimming pools, beaches, bicycling and baseball—the dandelion days punctuated by lemonade stands, amusement parks, camping and playgrounds. It’s easy to wax poetic.

In truth, though, for kids, summer has always been the riskiest time of year. Because hazards rise in direct proportion to increases in outdoor activity, these are the months in which, for example, the most drownings, head injuries and boating incidents occur. Such dangers are well publicized and part of what parents have had to be wary of for generations.

Well, now there’s a relatively new breed of summer hazard, and it’s situated mostly indoors. It’s centered on the Internet, and the danger is growing in direct proportion to the increase in popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook—and to the fact that summer is also the season of youthful indiscretion.

Face the Facts

As of early June, the Facebook statistics blog Socialbakers was trumpeting the news that Facebook was about to hit 700 million users. At the same time, a Consumer Reports study revealed that approximately 7.5 million children under age 13—Facebook’s legal minimum age—were among those users.

Both of those numbers have certainly grown by now, because in the meantime, with school out and the dog days to fill, there’s been more time for children to spend online, much to the chagrin of those still trying to make a go of it with the lemonade stands.

The Consumer Reports study also found that the majority of the parents of underage Facebookers have no clue what their children are up to. According to law enforcement statistics, though, what many of the young social networkers are doing, often unwittingly, is figuratively dipping their toes in pools of trouble and, way too often, just jumping right in and swimming with sharks.

“Summer is high time for predators to start grooming new victims,” says Jamie Leasure, co-founder of Pandora Corp., the maker of PC Pandora computer monitoring software.

“It’s easy for a predator to pretend to be a new kid in town looking to make a few friends over the summer before school starts. While talking to your kids about online stranger danger is a must, it is also important to be aware of any new friends in your child’s life, as predators often don’t put their real identity forward.”

Pandora’s Director of Public Relations and Marketing Ken Shallcross adds to that, saying, “Talking is great, but what a lot of parents forget is that kids are kids; they’re going to lie. You can talk to them and think you have an open relationship, but the last thing they’re going to do is tell you when they make a new ‘friend’ on Facebook, especially if the conversation is a little bit flirty or if sexual messages are traded back and forth.”

In addition to that lurking threat, cyberbullying has reached epidemic proportions, Leasure notes. No longer restricted to the schoolyard or playground, bullying is now, thanks to the ubiquity of social media, a 24/7 opportunity with far-reaching implications. The practice has been blamed in the suicide deaths of youth across the country.

“PC Pandora will let you know if your child is the victim of an online tormenter, and, sometimes, it may also show your child to be an aggressor— something that should never be tolerated,” Leasure says. “There are simply too many dangers out there to turn your head and let your child be on Facebook unsupervised.”

Pandora’s Box

As a way to provide the supervision, PC Pandora (pcpandora.com) records and captures all computer activity, providing data logs of e-mails sent and received, instant messenger conversations, a user’s Web history, peer-to-peer activity and more.

Critics of such wholesale monitoring (who may or may not be parents themselves) say the Pandora program and others like it are less about supervision and more about blatant spying. Shallcross disagrees: “When your kid is 3 years old and you take him to the park, you don’t look away—you watch him,” he says. “When your kid turns 16 and takes driver’s ed, you don’t just hand him the keys to the car and say, ‘Here you go.’ But with the Internet? So many parents today just say, ‘Go ahead; just go online and be safe,’ and they think that is going to be good enough. It’s not.

“Some people wage the argument that, ‘Well, my parents didn’t listen to my phone conversations, and they didn’t read my diary.’ Which, yeah, but back then you didn’t broadcast your diary to the whole world, nor did you pick up the phone and just call random strangers, because that would have been just a stupid thing to do. But now kids do it on Facebook every day, and parents just don’t know-slash-don’t care, and that is what is wrong.”

There’s no question that in the right, responsible hands, the monitoring capability of PC Pandora and similar programs provides a powerful tool for parenting in the 21st century. Yet it doesn’t take much imagination to see that in less loving hands such power could easily be enlisted for other, less protective purposes.

For example, a suspicious spouse might use the software as a particularly effective piece of anti-affairware. An employer could conceivably deploy it as an anti-time-wasting tool. Public libraries could use it to keep tabs on their patrons. And the list goes uncomfortably on.

In the end, marketing the technology as a weapon for wary parents to use against a wicked world is palatable— and timely, because, unfortunately, we’re in the right season for it.

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Security Today.

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