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Technopeasant's Guide for Parents of Web-enabled Children
Jeff Pasternack

Note to readers: The identities of the individuals mentioned in this month's column have been changed to protect the guilty and the innocent. If you're not in the mood for a greatly embellished, fanciful rendering of a real event, simply skip to the last paragraph or two.

Technopeasant's Log, Star Date: February 15, 2002. Its 4:15pm on a Friday. My crew has just informed me that we have to submit a response to a 130 page request-for-proposal by 5pm Tuesday. Our crack engineering team tells me that there is no more power; we'll have to find a way to do the proposal ourselves. My colleagues run for the door, citing an emergency at the local watering hole that requires them to pay a site visit. Apparently too much water was delivered and the kegs will burst if they aren't quickly drained. I resign myself to the fact that I'll be working close to 80 of the next 98 hours before the proposal is due. Our response figures to be just over 300 pages, or one page every 16 minutes. Just then, the phone rings.

"Grateful day this is Jeff can you help meI mean, can I help you?"

"Oh Jeff, I'm so glad your there. I just found out that my teenager has just posted a web site that contains some objectionable material. What's worse, a family friend saw the site and posted a comment to the guest book and identified my child by putting her name in the post. Now my child can be identified. Can you help?"

"Now ma'am, take a deep breath and settle down, I'll help you out," I hear myself saying as precious seconds tick off the clock. "What is the URL of the Web site?"

She stammers it out and I visit the site. Having seen a fair share of objectionable material on the Web, and knowing the mischievous nature of today's kids, I brace myself for the worst. But nothing could prepare me for what I was about to see. As the site materializes on the screen before me, I am shocked to see a bright, happy pink background with the words "Hot" in moving flames, sitting on top of a row of pulsing hearts. The top of the page was marred with this sultry title: "A Teenager's Guide to Kissing."

I sat in stunned silence as my eyes raced down this page of content that was clearly of prurient interest. My trembling fingers hinted at the emotions boiling just below the surface of my tormented soul. In the distance, a digital clock ticked.

"Scroll to the bottom and look at the guest book," stated the caller, jarring me to attention. I scroll hesitantly to the bottom and click on the guest book link.

"Do you see it? She greeted her by name and now my child can be identified. You have to help me. Can you take the page down?" she pleaded.

My heart went out to her as I glanced at the clock. It was now 4:27 and I was in a bind, but what could be more important than protecting the identity of a teenager who had unknowingly given web site visitors the ability to finger them in the crowd of other Netizens?

"I'll call you right back, give me a few minutes." I hung up, internal conflict raging inside me about violating the privacy rights of a fragile eggshell mind versus protecting those same rights through the application of intense technological wizardry. I got over it.

I ser my square, grizzled jaw with grim determination and fire and set about analyzing the highly complex security precautions that the wicked corporate enabler had erected to defend its clients' rights. The intimidating barrier was before my eyes in bold black letters: "Enter your secret password to access your web site." I looked into my toolkit. Did I have time to author and deploy a script to randomly generate passwords until one worked? Could I violate the sense of privacy that a nubile, innocent mind had when the site and password were created in order to protect that same privacy? It was 4:29 and time was not my ally. I decided that I would not write such a script and instead deploy my crack intelligence and cunning to defeat this intricately password-protected system. Sweat beading on my brow, I set to work and typed "kissing" into the gaping maw of the password-entry box. The browser indicated that it was waiting for a reply, those precious moments being lost into the annals of time forever. The screen refreshed:

"Welcome !"

I breathed a sigh of relief. I was in. To celebrate, I took a long pull off my diet Mountain Dew and punched the telephone's keypad.

"Ma'amI'm in. I'll have the objectionable content removed in no time and your teenager's identity will slip back into the cesspool of digital humanity that is the 'Net." I executed a few adroitly placed keystrokes and the site was cleaned of everything. She thanked me profusely and hung up.

This is a true story and while I hammed it up a bit, I think there are some valuable lessons of which parents should take note.

The Web is an easy place to communicate and there are hundreds of places that give kids free reign to create what they want. You should encourage your kids to use and become familiar with these tools, for it is their future. Accept the fact that kids will be kids and that posting a web site with daring content, such as a guide to kissing, is theoretically no different than passing notes in class or having whispered phone calls at 2am. However, there is one key difference that is relevant to the web: it is open to the world.

As you tell your kids that it is ok to build web sites, make sure that if the site has daring content, that they do not include anything like a guest book or discussion forum. Content such as a guide to kissing is probably harmless if most people were to view it, and probably funny to boot. This same guide is bait to someone with more nefarious intentions and interests.

Just as in the story above, it is very easy to accidentally cause harm. A guest book or discussion board on a site that talks of sports, video games or club activities, is a useful tool to facilitating the discussion. On a kissing guide site, while the web site creator may want to know what his or her friends think, its better to leave guest books and boards off of them. Someone who simply types in something innocuous like, "Hey Pasternack, great site", instantly identifies your daughter or son. Follow this with one other respondent saying "Nice site Jeff!" and the identity game is over.

Remember that a main attraction of the Internet is the ability to talk to strangers; the old axiom no longer applies. Rather, you must find a way to teach kids about protecting their identity on the Internet so that when they do talk with strangers, they are still somewhat protected. You may not know what your kids are doing on the computer and, frankly, you may not want to know. But you do want to know that they are interacting in a way that still lets them have fun and shields them from dangers that they shouldn't be worrying about in the first place.

Jeff Pasternack is the president of Dynamic Consulting Group, a franchise partner of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? and author of the TechnoPeasant Review.
If you have questions or comments about this column, please write to him at