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A Parent's Role as Net Cop?

Last night I received a phone call that reminded me of a story I had planned to write a few months back but got sidetracked from finishing, involving a series of bomb threats one individual kept making at several schools up north. The local authorities got involved, and after the fourth bomb threat within a few weeks, the county sheriff held a town meeting where he urged the parents to check the logs of the online chat conversations of their children to see if any of them had discussed planning the bomb threats

According to several people I interviewed at the time who attended that meeting, few of the parents knew the first thing about what their kids were doing online, much less how to check up on any of it. Many felt strongly that peeking at their children's browsing and chatting records would be a flagrant violation of their child's right to privacy.

Back when I was reporting this story, I asked a few security experts what they thought, and got similarly diverse views. Privacy expert Richard M. Smith said parents should supervise their children's online activities: "Parents don't realize how easy it is for the kids to wind up in the wrong place online."

Still, Smith said, parents should ease up on the monitoring when kids get older (though he declined to say what age that should be). His kids have all left the nest now, but when his daughters were preteens, the computer stayed in a very visible area of the home. In their later teen years, Smith said he acquiesced to one daughter's request for a computer in her room.

"Seems like the older kids deserve their own space," he said. "Somehow you trust girls more than you do boys in this area."

Marcus Sachs, director of the SANS Internet Storm Center and a deputy director at SRI International, said in his home his 17- and 18-year-old daughters were told long ago that as long as they live under his roof they have zero expectation of privacy online.

"There is absolutely no such thing as privacy for kids online," Sachs said.

Now, I don't have any kids yet, so maybe my personal views on this subject will change when I do. But it seems to me that while the Internet is a vast ocean of information -- much of it fascinating, beautiful, entertaining and informative -- there appears to be far more digital crud out there that hardly waits for you to find it.

In my opinion, leaving a teenager alone in his or her bedroom with a computer for hours on end is a recipe for trouble. Giving a preteen unsupervised access to the Internet over the long term strikes me as flirting with disaster -- particularly if your child trusts the wrong person with his or her personal information.

It's probably worth mentioning here the kid we wrote about last week who admitted hacking Paris Hilton's cell phone and data broker LexisNexis. Among his first public stunts were bomb threats, and he clearly had little or no trouble evading parental supervision.

Incidentally, security expert Winn Schwartau has written a very thoughtful book on this very subject, entitled "Internet and Computer Ethics for Kids (and Parents & Teachers Who Haven't Got a Clue)."

What do you think, readers? Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment in the section below, or drop me an e-mail. If you do express your views in an e-mail, please let me know whether it is okay to publish your comments, if not also your name.

By Brian Krebs  |  September 21, 2005; 11:47 AM ET
Categories:  From the Bunker  
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