Security

The best tool for protecting your kids (or employees) from malware and porn

One of the industry's best security tools gives a hand to frazzled parents.

Image: iStock/djedzura

Parenting has never been easy, but in the age of instant internet gratification, it's exponentially harder.

I used to think myself quite the advanced, cool father, getting my pre- or barely pubescent kids smartphones and liking their posts on Facebook or Instagram and keeping in touch through SMS while I traveled. But then they discovered the Google search box, and all hell broke loose.

I don't have bad kids. But my kids, perhaps like yours, don't understand that searching for kitten pictures may not return the results they actually want. They don't know just how much the pornography industry wants to hook them early. They don't realize just how creepy people can be when cloaked in apparent anonymity.

And so I started trying to help them grow up safely in a world that was trying to force them to grow up way too early.

In the process, I've discovered a variety of tools that help me to teach my children to be responsible with technology. Perhaps the most promising, and most recent, is the OpenDNS Umbrella service.

An industry arrayed against our children

On the internet, no one knows that you're a dog, and no one cares that you're a kid. Though we have laws designed to protect children from "adult" content (Children's Internet Protection Act) and to guard their privacy (Children's Online Privacy Protection Act), they don't work. Not really.

Such laws absolutely guide well-intentioned companies like Facebook to treat children appropriately, but they generally fail to stop bad actors from acting badly.

Children, like adults, can inadvertently find themselves on sites they didn't want to visit, and pornography sites make it hard to leave. (I remember mistyping "Gartner.com" a few years back while looking for a research note and was horrified by the site I landed on, but doubly so because it tried to take over my browser, preventing me from closing the tab. If people want pornography so much, why do porn purveyors work so hard to force it on us?)

Or children, curious as they are, can go looking for things they're not equipped to deal with.

But it's not just porn. As I've written, the gaming industry uses massive quantities of data to keep players playing. A few years back, this cost me several hundred dollars as my then 13-year old son could not stop playing as he sought his dopamine fix.

So I took action.

Useful tools for parents

The first thing I did was to enable Restrictions (parental controls) on my kids' phones. This is easily done on iOS (and I would assume on Android, though I'm less familiar with it), and allowed me to disable my son's browser, stop in-app purchases for all of my kids, and select the content ratings for music, TV, and other media.

This was a great first step.

However, kids being kids, they each found their own workarounds. Somehow my game-consumed son found a way to install Graal (repeatedly), despite my disabling the ability to install new apps. (Years later I still don't know how he managed it.) Meanwhile, his cousin found a way around the disabled browser by accessing a browser in his dictionary app (!!). And so on.

So I locked down all internet traffic using OpenDNS. By filtering content at the router level, I was able to give my kids access to their browsers while keeping an eye on things. I much prefer this more open approach, and so did they. Occasionally, however, they received the dreaded warning (Figure A).

Figure A

umbrellafiga062415.png

The service isn't perfect: it doesn't correctly categorize everything. And my wife wasn't always a fan, as buying swimsuits sometimes required me to whitelist a domain for her.

But overall, things were better.

Protecting kids outside the home

Except that OpenDNS only helped when my family was accessing the internet over our home Wi-Fi connection. Whenever they left the house, or if they chose to use their cellular connection within the house, they were exposed.

Which is why I'm so grateful for OpenDNS' new Umbrella service.

Introduced in 2012, I never knew about Umbrella until 2015, when a friend on Twitter recommended it. Yes, I had seen it on the OpenDNS website, but it is marketed to enterprises that wanted to provide security and for employees operating outside the corporate firewall.

Even after I had looked into Umbrella and it sounded promising, it wasn't until OpenDNS clued me into its "prosumer" pricing on Twitter that it started to sound like a viable, cost-effective option for my family.

And it is.

Basically, Umbrella by OpenDNS sets up a VPN on iOS devices (only iOS is supported today) and directs all internet traffic through it (with minimal latency). As administrator, I just install the Umbrella app on their devices and then have the service send them an email. Clicking on a link in the email provisions the device and locks it down.

Perhaps not as simple as it could be, but still quite easy.

While Umbrella may be targeted at enterprises that want to protect corporate data, I have quickly come to love how easy it is for me to monitor my kids' online activities, and steer them away from negative influences (Figure B).

Figure B

umbrellafigbrev2062415.png

Rather than put up a "Denied!" page, I now redirect such traffic to my church's website, a tongue-in-cheek way of reminding my kids that there are nice places to visit on the web, too.

Through the service my kids and I have had some productive conversations about internet safety. For example, my son likes to dig into game forums to learn about cheat codes for Destiny and other games, but it turns out such sites are also rife with links to unsavory sites. Umbrella has given me the chance to talk with him about steering toward safer places on the web, and his traffic over the past week suggests he's learning the lesson.

Again, Umbrella by OpenDNS isn't foolproof. But for the purpose of helping me to be a good parent to my kids, it's excellent. You can get the prosumer version for one to five users here.

Also see

About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox