A Mom's Worries on Children + OLPC + Internet = Bad Things

   
   
   
   
   

Over on the OLPC Developers listserv, there is an interesting discussion around a very simple worry. Betty Dingus's friend asks: Will using the XO laptop harm my child? And how can I supervise usage so it doesn't?:

gabe olpc
Whatcha doing there, Gabe?
"My biggest concern about the XO is protecting my children:
  1. from predators, etc. on the Internet or who get into the "mesh",
  2. from accidentally or purposefully getting inappropriate emails and ads and
  3. from accidentally or purposefully accessing inappropriate web sites.
I wonder if it's possible, when I'm not around to supervise, for me to remove access to email and the Internet
Now Betty's friend has read about OLPC's porn problem, but she's not focused on that or even the child molester boogeyman that's always trotted out when people think kids + Internet.

This Mom sounds like a concerned and involved parent, a Mom who would like to supervise her child's computer usage yet respect their need to explore. A wonderful Mom who is not unique to G1G1 buyers or even the developed world. This is a Mom who should get a better answer than Albert Cahalan's flippancy:

I wonder if the biggest problem is really that you would be uncomfortable if your kid started asking you about some of the weird stuff that he finds. He probably knows not to ask.
And while Karl O. Pinc has a much better, and more reassuring answer, its still a big "trust us" that does not inspire confidence in skeptical parents:
The child with the XO is surely better protected than the typical child, given that the camera logs everything, bitfrost makes it less likely the computer will be subverted, etc. And because of it's market and the concerns surrounding children I believe that the situation will only improve. Which leads me to conclude that if you're going to give a child any wireless laptop the XO is the best choice.
I agree with Karl, but will parents? Do you? And should we follow Nicholas Negroponte's advice and make children's usage seamless throughout the day?
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15 Comments

I have to say that the computer, like a TV, is not a babysitter. I have 3 kids and when I bought my laptop from OLPC I bought 2. I fully intend to be supervising my kids while they are one it and If I cannot, either their father will be or my 16 year old daughter.
I do not think it is OLPC's responsibility to protect my kids from predators or inappropriate content. It is mine. I also feel that to my son, who is the one this laptop is aimed at here, the privilege of being able to use it will far outweigh the temptation of misusing it, should he find himself faced with a decision like that.
Computers are the tool, but you have the final say, as parents, as to how it is used. Just as you moderate TV use at home, you should do the same for internet use.
That is my opinion anyhow.

" the camera logs everything"
Wait, what? isn't that a concern for a responsible parent? The camera logs the child daily activities? Without the child knowing? And how does OLPC prevents an unauthorized access to this data??

"" the camera logs everything"
Wait, what? isn't that a concern for a responsible parent? The camera logs the child daily activities? Without the child knowing? And how does OLPC prevents an unauthorized access to this data??"

Obviously, the camera logs the use of the camera, not the pictures. The system is constructed such that there is a hard-wired led that lights up when the camera is recording, just as there is one for the microphone. These leds ar NOT under software control.

These leds prevent anyone who takes over the laptop from using camera or microphone to spy on the children. They will immediately notice that the laptop is recording them.

The OLPC seems to have gone beyond the call of duty, as they say, to protect the children. But they can only protect those parts of the total use chain that are under the control of soft and hardware. So we can reasonably expect that the XO is protected against the known ways of breakage, and against most theoretical attacks. That is, the XO will be more secure out of the box than the best lap- or desktops sold for general use at any price. However, this security is partly off-set by the market forces of a very large monoculture of computer systems.

On the network level, protecting children's privacy already goes a long way in protecting the children themselves. But children can easily be tricked to give out names and addresses, so that will remain a source of concern.

Phishing, spam emails and other confidence tricks cannot be prevented by technical means. One interesting suggestion was to start on-line games for children where they must try to design such scams themselves, with points if you can get others to fall for it. Nothing protects so much against tricksters as having done it yourself.

What neither the OLPC nor anybody else outside of the family can do is protect children against targetted attacks that use normal communication modalities. As someone else wrote already, a computer is not a babysitter. If you know what your child is doing, you can prevent a lot of mishap.

All in all, if I had to chose between a XO and any Windows computer for a child, the XO would be orders of magnitude more secure. No comparison, really.
(do you know how completely insecure MSN is by design?)

Winter

I was aware on the led (great thing) I just got scared by the "log" part.

In the end all the parents are asking are means to have standards of "parental controls" you can find on other systems. Restrict access to certain websites (or only to "approved websites") restrict times when they can use the computer and with who they are allowed to talk to by email or im.

There are 2 things here:
1-first a filosophical question on whether those tecniques do any good or if they only give parents a false sense of security while the kid finds work arounds. We can argue that , but in the end of the day it┬┤s up to each parent how he teaches his kid and it's not OLPC jobs to have an opinion on the matter.

2-The second is a technical: in a open platform, is it possible to put any usage restrains? I believe yes it is. No restrain, be it in an open or closed source, can be enforced forever without a workaround. So instead of designing a system that makes it impossible to do A it's better to design a system where it's a heck lot easier to do B (which is what the parent wants).

But in the end I think it will be better to build supervising tools not restrains. Make it easier to the parent to take a look on the daily journal log of his child, and harder to the kid to hide it. Until he reaches an age where he is mature enough to value his own privacy and hide his laptop under his bed away from dad or mom.

"2-The second is a technical: in a open platform, is it possible to put any usage restrains?"

This is Linux, we expect a root/sudo and user accounts. So the short answer is yes.

"But in the end I think it will be better to build supervising tools not restrains. Make it easier to "

I agree completely. If you want to filter, this should be done at the router (access point) and not in the computer.

But I see ALL content filters as broken. You want to filter on Meaning, but your rules are on Form. So there will be no filter that can distinguish between a medical site that informs about infectuous diseases and a porn site. And filtering on "cum" will block out every single latin text.

In my opinion, if you think you MUST filter, do it by checking the router logs. If your children know you can actually SEE what they are looking at, they will most likely behave.

Until they find TOR, that is. But TOR bypasses any filter anyway. And at that level, you'd better ask your children to protect YOU.

Winter

This is such an incredibly tired argument. If this individual is so terrified about her child's online safety, there's an easy solution: shell out ~ $1500 for an iMac and crank up the arsenal of parental controls Leopard provides.

I'm amazed and dismayed by both the scorn and (in this case) the ridiculous level of expectation being piled upon OLPC. They set out to enable learning among 3rd-world children... not to become 1st-world babysitters.

There are ISPs and DNS/proxy providers that handle internet filtering, but that's not to say you should allow a child to access the internet unsupervised if your main concern is what they can access.

This argument rarely makes sense coming from a parent that has some control over the outcome themselves if they choose to participate. It usually seems to me as it's the type of parent that says "here, have this computer..go play somewhere"

When it comes to parents worrying about OTHER children it just becomes obsurd. You're not going to block children's access to adult material 100% anywhere...even before the internet this was just bound to happen, and most of us kids grew up alright. When you have children that are hitting puberty however that's a whole different story...but assessing the real damages that can occur from exposure is a tough philosophical stance like mentioned previously.

The fear of sexuality is also primarily a U.S. concern...but I'll digress.

I'm a foster parent, and have cared for dozens of children of all ages in my home. I'm basically a liberal, and believe that information should generally be free and accessible to everyone. That said, I can tell you from personal experience that the Internet does pose a real danger to some kids. Not all -- I believe it is possible to raise children who are largely immune to the dangers posed in the original post -- but let's face it, not everyone is a perfect parent. Imperfection shouldn't mean software and hardware providers are off the hook when it comes to protecting kids.

OLPC is giving everyone one year of wireless Internet access with the G1G1 machines. I doubt T-Mobile is going to put parental controls on their servers. So it is not enough to tell parents to watch the router logs or set up parental controls through their ISP.

As far as I can tell, the XO browser not only doesn't support parental controls, it doesn't even support bookmarks (someone correct me if I'm wrong; there are no bookmarking capabilities in the demo I have run). So parents can't even preload acceptable or recommended sites in the browser. No parental controls: OK, I get that, and having used them on occaision I admit that I'm not totally a fan. But no bookmark capability in the browser is just negligent.

I have ordered an XO for my 8-year old daughter on G1G1, and am looking forward to receiving it. But if the browser is as crippled as it is in the demo, it will be the first thing to go.

Sorry, but you are missing something here. XOs are going to be giving to kids all around the world (or at least in some parts of it) without parents being asked about their opinion. At least it should be made crystal-clear to those involved in the implementation that there are problems, potential and actual, about this.

There's a responsibility to all those involved to make it work, and there are plenty of safety issues that should be addressed before it happens. I know from personal experience that parents, even in middle-class schools in my hometown like the one my 10 year-old kid attends, that are completely ignorant about what's going on in the Net. It's not just porn, (not just an American obsession, btw), it's a range of issues from financial to educational ones. Flippancy is the worst possible strategy.

I ordered an XO for my ten year old son who is very excited but I would be lying if I said I had no concerns for his safety. What I fear is not when he would be surfing the internet but rather his safety during mesh interfacing. It is very sad that there are many predators out there who may use the XO to contact children.

There is a fine line now that we all must walk as parents with the XO. We should not scare our children from using this wonderful tool for exploring the world and its people yet we can not completely allow our children to use this tool unguarded.

It is my hope that some of the numerous programmers whom purchased their XO's will someday develop programs to secure the safety of our children as they learn to program and develop their computing skills.

I ordered an XO for my ten year old son who is very excited but I would be lying if I said I had no concerns for his safety. What I fear is not when he would be surfing the internet but rather his safety during mesh interfacing. It is very sad that there are many predators out there who may use the XO to contact children. There is a fine line now that we all must walk as parents with the XO. We should not scare our children from using this wonderful tool for exploring the world and its people yet we can not completely allow our children to use this tool unguarded. It is my hope that some of the numerous programmers whom purchased their XO's will someday develop programs to secure the safety of our children as they learn to program and develop their computing skills.

"It is very sad that there are many predators out there who may use the XO to contact children. "

I am not aware of the US statistics, but in my country much more children die in (traffic) accidents than from any human predators. The latter don't even show up in the statistics. So, in general, your kids would be safer behind a computer than doing almost anything else.

If I remember well, each XO has a unique ID, which shows up in all messages. So I think that using an XO to communicate might leave too many fingerprints to become very popular. And you cannot easily, or at all, break in into an XO using the mesh. This is NOT MS windows.

I see internet predators largely as a illusory problem. It happens, but is much less likely than meeting the criminal anywhere else on or off the streets.

There is a rule that says that if it is on TV, it must be so exceptional that you can safely ignore it. I think this fear is one example.

On the other hand, these statistics might not hold in most developing nations. But even there, human predators come after inadequate health care, accidents, general violence, and sometimes even after real animal predators.

Winter

The Browser Activity (a thin python wrap of xul-runner, btw), like may other aspects of the Sugar software is under rapid development, and features come (and go, and come back :). I'm not sure which build you tested, but there have bookmarks in the Browser activity for awhile. You click the star and the bookmarks appear in a shelf, pic: http://adric.net/img/olpc-bookmark-star.png . Browse home is here: http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Browse .

By way of discouraging the political flare up that prompted this news post, I would like to point out that g1g1 is an anomaly and not the stated mission or purpose of OLPC. OLPC works with governments and schools to arrange for mass distribution of XOs and support hardware. Customization is expected at the government and classroom level. To wit, they did not design these wonderful devices or their software to be sold to end users, but are giving us a opportunity to donate and get one to help jump start the project.

That said if you do have technical questions, please check the wiki, drop by the irc channel or the mailing lists, or post on this site, and someone will try and help.

Children's safety is a must, particularly from policy makers, politicians and let alone parents point of view. As Eduardo says above, that thee people 'are completely ignorant about what's going on in the Net'. We get questions regarding children safety all the time here in Chile when we show the XO (or the Clasmate). I personally believe that this is not only a technical issue but a psychological one. Here again, you can compare the approach Intel has adopted: every time they talk about what's important about their product, they mention the partental-control software included. I have seen it with my own eyes. Not sure if that software is really the best solution, but after that explanation, every parent in the room seems to be happier.
http://www.classmatepc.com/classmatepc-system-software-parental.html

Two words: Security.., ...theatre.

I honestly cannot think of what else can be done.

Simply, "The world is different now."

And, ... ...the security theatre show MUST go on. What else could anyone do?!

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