Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Reconciling Parental Control Software with Internet Security Principles

By Coenraad De Beer

Conventional parental control software is a security risk on its own. Parents often fail to identify the underlying risks of Internet monitoring software, but what do you use if you want to monitor your child's activity on the Internet?

Parental control software remains a useful tool to monitor your child's online activity and at the same time block inappropriate content. The fact that you are an adult does not necessarily mean you like to view offensive content, so the software can also be utilised to block offensive content on sites you often visit. Unfortunately, with the monitoring part of the software comes an inherent security risk of sensitive information that may fall into the wrong hands.

If you want to use parental control software, you need to use it responsibly, especially if you install it on a computer that is shared by several members of your household. The trustworthy members of the family need to be aware of the software and the need to have administrator privileges to disable the software before working on the computer. Parents often forget to disable the software before doing online shopping or banking, effectively allowing the key-logger component of the software to log important information such as social security numbers, credit card numbers and passwords.

Many Internet monitoring software packages take screenshots at certain intervals to capture the contents of the screen at a specific point in time. This is also dangerous if you forget to disable the monitoring part of the software, before logging into a secure area of a website. Screenshots can be taken of sensitive information that's normally only accessible behind a secure login area. All this information (keystrokes and screenshots) is stored on your hard drive, exposing it to possible exploits from crackers or spyware.

Well-written parental control software will obviously encrypt the information it logs, but crackers often decipher the encryption code in next to no time. The last thing you need is a spyware infection or an intruder on your system that can bypass the encryption of the parental control software. You don't want a stranger going through your logs if you accidentally forgot to disable the software before entering sensitive information on the Internet. So the most important thing to remember is to disable the monitoring software before you use the computer and remember to enable it again when you're done, otherwise there is no point in having the software on your computer in the first place.

Some parental control software allows you to create different profiles for different members of the family. You can for instance have a "Child" profile that blocks inappropriate content and monitors your child's activity on the web, a "Teen" profile that does not block any content, but only monitors your child's activity and a "Parent" profile that does not monitor your activity or block any content. The "Teen" profile can be activated when your teenager wants to use the computer, or you can activate the "Parent" profile if you are present while your children surfs the Internet. The "Child" profile should be used to limit Internet access while you are not at home to keep an eye on your children's Internet activity.

Kaspersky Lab recently integrated a parental control module into their Internet Security suite. It does not log keystrokes or take screenshots, it only monitors HTTP traffic. To know what your child is doing on his or her computer, you only need to monitor their Internet use. It is easy to see which games they are playing and which software they are using by examining certain areas of your system, like the Program Files folder and the Add and Remove Programs section of the control panel. Clever kids will know how to wipe this information, but most programs make connections to the Internet these days, so just by examining the HTTP traffic generated by these programs, you can easily tell which programs your child is using and which websites they are visiting.

The parental control module of Kaspersky Internet Security logs all the websites visited by your children, all the remote images loaded from e-mails that they read and all the servers they connect to for online gaming and software updates. If the logs contain entries from, then your child is probably using Winamp to play music or movies. Entries from, might indicate that your child is playing some games developed by Electronic Arts. Your children will also download software from certain sites, which will give you another indication of what kind of software they are using. The fact that the software monitors HTTP traffic, means that you are not only limited to the traffic generated by a web browser or e-mail client, it monitors all Internet activity from any application.

The way that Kaspersky Lab approaches parental control and monitoring software, does not compromise your online safety like your conventional child monitoring software, because there is no security holes created by keystroke logging and capturing of screen data. The logs of your HTTP traffic may still contain tracking information that you may not want to reveal to advertising companies (and their spyware programs), but the beauty of this module is that it is integrated into an Internet security suite, so you are automatically protected against unauthorised access and malicious software infections, thanks to the firewall the anti-malware shields of the software. Traffic through secure servers (HTTPS) is normally encrypted, so the monitoring software only sees the encrypted data during a secure online session like Internet banking or online shopping. I still recommend that you turn of the parental control module before transmitting sensitive information over the Internet.

Up to know I basically discussed the monitoring part of parental control software. The control part allows you to block indecent content as well. Blocking inappropriate content minimises the risk of malware infections. Porn sites are often loaded with spyware, so keeping your children away from these sites, does not only protect them from exposure to harmful content, but it also protects your computer from dangerous infections. Your child's porn surfing may be the cause of a dangerous spyware infection, something you may not be aware of (especially if you don't have any spyware protection installed). You could easily log into your online banking account or enter sensitive information on the web, without realising that there are spyware lurking on your computer, watching your every move. Parental control software is not designed to protect your computer against malware infections, but preventing your children from accessing inappropriate websites, helps them to stay away from potentially dangerous websites, which is the number one rule in malware prevention.

Proper parental control software should allow you to set up filters to block specific inappropriate content, giving you complete control over what you allow your child to access on the Internet. Kaspersky Internet Security allows you to do exactly this. Lets say you want to block access to sites containing the word "murder" in the URL. You simply add the filter "*murder*" to the Parental Control Blacklist and it will block all websites containing the word "murder" in the URL. You can also blacklist specific URL's to prevent access to certain online chat rooms, web mail services or social community websites. Websites that carries your approval can be added to a white list to prevent the software from accidentally blocking it, or you may want to allow only specific pages from a site that's currently on the blacklist. The flexibility of the software allows you to fine tune the parental control software to your own specific needs, enhancing the online safety of your children.

So what is the message I'm trying to get across here? As I said at the beginning of this article, parental control and monitoring software remains a useful tool to keep an eye on your children's Internet activity when you are not present. As a parent you need to understand that parental control software poses certain security risks of you do not manage the software in a responsible way. I feel that developers of parental control software should move away from keystroke logging and screen capturing and focus on HTTP monitoring instead. Parental control software developed by a company who specialises in Internet security, gives you peace of mind that the software was designed with security as a top priority. The next step for Kaspersky Lab may be to make the module optional. Not everyone wants parental control software, but if I want to add this functionality to my computer, I'd rather buy it from a developer who has been in the Internet security industry for years, than buying the software from a developer who does not have a clue about Internet security.

About the Author
Coenraad is webmaster and founder of Cyber Top Cops, leaders in Internet security and analysts of Cyber Security Software. Read our review of Kaspersky Internet Security 7.0 for an in depth look into one of the most comprehensive Internet security suites in the security software industry.

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