Internet Protection and Content Filtering

With the vast majority of websites containing pornographic and illicit material, it’s become more and more necessary to protect yourself and your pc. These are a few recommendations of mine…so take them for what they’re worth. These recommendations are aimed at homes and small offices. Large offices and schools have access to enterprise-wide filtering and monitoring systems that a family or small church wouldn’t be able to reach.

Content Filtering

Two free products immediately jump out at me, with different applications.

  • K9 Web Protection is my favorite in-place Internet content filtering software, especially since it is free! Pros: It has many many different categories for filtering (everything from hate speech, pornography, warez, social networking, etc…), a wide variety of settings (including “Time out” for repeated violations), an audible warning, and an extensive audit trail. Cons: if you’re working with kids, it won’t monitor instant messaging, etc.
    On a side note, it even resists tampering pretty well!
    Edit: I nearly forgot about my favorite feature: it mandates that all Google searches use the SafeSearch feature!
  • Family Safety from Windows Live is also a good choice for families. It’s strength is also its weakness: each family member needs a .NET Passport Sign-in ID from Microsoft. These are free, and it’s useful for tracking each family member’s usage independently, and setting content restrictions independently. It’s also pretty good for reporting. This too, is free!
  • UPDATE: OpenDNS can be used as a NETWORK-level filtering tool! DNS is the “phone book” of the internet. Whenever you type in “happyhiatt.com”, your computer talks to a DNS, looks up the “phone number” (IP address) of this site, and connects you to the site. OpenDNS will allow you to use their DNS Servers…and you can specify what categories of sites your computers are allowed to see. The beauty of this solution is that it can be set up on your home router–thus protecting all PCs, all users, and all guests without having to install or maintain software on individual PCs. It is possible to circumvent its protection, but if your user is willing to memorize IP addresses of porn sites…well, someone reading this guide won’t be able to stop them!

There are certainly other web filtering products, but these are two that stand out….and they’re even free! (Have I mentioned that they are both free?) I’ve looked at many others, including Naomi (whose interface was nonexistent–a blocked site simply results in IE being shut down!), but most of them are either too complicated or not well-developed enough for consideration.

Wikipedia, of course, has a list of Content Control Software Pieces. If you’re comfortable technologically, and you feel like setting up a home server for file storage, remote access, and media services, some of the very best tools available are essentially proxy servers. Setting those up is way beyond the scope of this article…

Also, at a system-level in Microsoft Windows, you can modify your hosts file. Your hosts file is essentially a map that tells your computer how to find resources. The theory of hosts-based blocking is that you provide a list of forbidden sites, and whenever the PC tries to access them, it redirects back to itself. As long as the hosts file is in place, the machine is incapable of reaching those addresses. Here’s a link to some suggestions for host-based blocking.

Accountability

The best accountability tips are the most obvious. Computers should be in public rooms with monitors facing open areas. Offices shouldn’t have solid doors, and usage should generally be monitored.

It’s important for PCs to be locked with usernames and passwords, ideally for each individual user. This has the benefit of keeping settings and preferences for each individual, but also for accountability. It is much easier to locate a problem if you know that sites have only been loaded when User X is signed on. This removes the excuse of “I don’t know who did it.” Passwords should be well guarded.

Accountability software is designed more as a “helpful reminder” for those whose use of inappropriate sites would be less likely to be accidental, if you get my drift. With that in mind, the use of accountability software needs to be publicized.

  • X3Watch from XXXChurch (I promise, this is a church’s ministry, not a porn site) monitors your Internet usage, and provides a report for whomever you decide to grant access. They have both free and paid versions.
  • Covenant Eyes is a paid service that does the same as X3Watch, but adds significantly better reporting functions. These lists will be sent (with “suspicious” entries highlighted) to your designated accountability partner.

Both software pieces leave audit trails to indicate when they’ve been shut off and offer moderate levels of tamper resistance.

Another simple accountability measure comes in the form of policy: Internet Browsing History should never be deleted and should always be left open for inspection by others.

  • For Internet Explorer, under Tools – Internet Options, you will find settings controlling Internet History. You can specify the number of days history is stored locally.
  • A machine administrator can disable the “delete history” button in Internet Explorer.
  • Caveat: These instructions involve editing your windows registry. Please make backups, use common sense, follow directions carefully….and it is not my fault if you mess something up!! :-)
  • Open Registry Editor (Start – Run – regedit)
  • Navigate to the following key: HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Policies\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Control Panel (It is very likely that this key doesn’t exist. If so, navigate as far along the path as possible and then add keys until you’ve created the entire path)
  • If a value called “History” exists, modify it by double-clicking on it and changing the value from 0 to 1. If it does not exist, right click in the right panel, select New – DWORD value. Name it History. Then, double-click and set the value to 1.
  • Other browsers, like FireFox, Safari, and Opera have more parental settings available than IE, if you’re willing to take the plunge.
  • Protection

    These steps alone will prevent the vast majority of sites from reaching your computer, and the majority of users from seeking them out. They are not perfect, of course, and each step can be circumvented. Combined with diligence, however, these do the trick about as well as anything, especially considering they are free.

    A few more suggestions:

    1. Make sure you have antivirus software and that it is up-to-date. Having non-updated antivirus software is kind of like having a nice car that you never refilled the gas tank on — worthless! The advent of high speed internet as well as the widespread usage of USB drives have provided two new fast ways for viri to spread. There are (more than) two good free pieces out there that I’ll recommend:
      • AVG Free. Grisoft just released a new version of this software…it has come a very long way. Now it will even warn you before you click on links if it thinks they have a potential virus threat.
      • avast! This company also makes a free version available. It’s quick and it’s thorough.
    2. Make sure you have anti-malware/spyware software installed. Many viruses use holes created by “spyware” and “adware” to get into your computer. The biggest symptoms are computer slowness, disk thrash, “weird behavior”, and a new barrage of pornographic sites and emails whenever you surf.Dialers are particularly annoying/nasty pieces of adware. They use your computer’s modem (if equipped) to dial 900 numbers or international lines. Frequently, you won’t know you’ve been infected until you see your $800 phone bill! (By the way, you can call your phone company and block this sort of billing, too!)

      Here are two software pieces that will help clean up the muck:

      • LavaSoft AdAware is very good for cleaning and preventing this stuff.
      • Spybot S&D is my personal favorite. It’s fast and simple
    3. Make sure your Windows Update is running. Microsoft releases patches for all of their consumer applications through this service, and it protects you and your PC from hackers’ exploits.
    4. If you have a wireless network, secure it using at least WEP encryption. Your mileage will vary with this, so I’m not including directions. Wireless internet service has a similar range to cordless phones, but theoretically can reach nearly 1/4 mile, outside, on a sunny, clear day… You won’t be getting that far, but if your wireless network is not secured, not only might your neighbors be downloading illegal music shares (or worse!) under your name, their viruses might find their way onto your computers.

     

    These steps aren’t guarantees — but they’ll get you a lot closer to making sure your internet experience is safe and beneficial for your whole family. Let me know if you have any questions!

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