Monthly Archives: July 2015

Protecting your family online (3)

In our last post we mentioned the first essential tool, internet filtering, members are asked to use to help ‘protect their family online’.   In this article we want to discuss two other tools:

Tool 2: Accountability Reporting Software

Relying on internet filters alone is not enough.  Internet use must also be monitored with accountability reporting software, which often is part of the filter you install (something we’ll come back to later).  Accountability software, when set up properly, keeps a list of all the sites you or another user have visited (or tried to visit) and when you did so, and emails this list to someone on a regular basis.  When these activity logs are reviewed one can tell what each user was trying to access and if the filter is working properly or needs to be reconfigured.  This type of software is much more reliable than your web browser history logs, as the latter can easily be cleared and may be difficult to access if the devices are mobile or inside another user account.

Accountability software should be set up so the reports it generates are sent to an accountability partner–your spouse or another trusted adult.  This is an excellent way for the computer administrator to remain honest especially if the accountability software is robust enough that it cannot be disabled without the partner’s password.  If this step seems somewhat over-the-top, bear in mind that internet misuse is fostered most by the ease and secrecy with which illicit material can be accessed.  Knowing someone may review our online activities is a strong deterrent from doing something inappropriate.   Mikko Hypponen, an internet pioneer and cybersecurity expert, recently remarked that many trust Google with secrets they withhold from their spouse.

NetNanny, iGateWeb, and OpenDNS all provide different levels of accountability reporting.  However, if the filter is disabled or circumvented the accountability report obviously is inaccurate, which is one reason an accountability reporting solution that avoids this should be used.  Some examples of such solutions include: Qustodio, Covenant Eyes (where the accountability reporting is separate from their filter), and eBlaster Software

It is important you research these (and other) options and choose one.  Many programs offer a trial period allowing you to experiment and see if the software works for you.  Once you have committed to a program, install it on every device in your home (all the devices you listed in the first article).  Like the filter, the accountability report must be configured for each user account to give you an idea of what each user is doing.

Tool 3: Parental Controls

Limiting digital technology use for your children using parental controls and different user accounts is important for more than their moral wellbeing.  Too much screen time has been linked to obesity, sleep and eating disorders, behavioral problems, impaired academic performance, aggression, and insufficient time for active/creative play.  The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages screen time for children under two and recommends limiting daily screen time to one to two hours for older children.  Parental controls are useful tools that allow parents to set specific time limits on the digital devices their children use.  Equally important, this software also allows parents to prevent their children from using specific programs and apps.  Parental controls can be set up using either features built into the operating system or other software programs.

There are too many different operating systems and parental control programs to allow a discussion of all the ways to set them up.  That does not mean setting up parental controls is difficult.  Usually the parental controls (called “Restrictions” on iPhones) can be found in the control panel or in the settings menu.  It is best if you google “Windows parental controls” or “Android restricted profiles” to access one of the many guides detailing how to install parental controls.  Since each user will require different restrictions, a separate user account (or profile) should be created for each user.  For children these accounts should be ‘limited’ or ‘restricted’ to prevent them for installing unwanted software and from having administrator privileges on the device.

Controls on smartphones.  Correctly configuring the parental controls on your child’s smartphone (or tablet, etc.) is very important.  Aside from phone calls and texting, these devices are used to watch movies and access social media (and many other things), so that they often become your child’s main portal to the digital world.  Without having the parental controls or restrictions properly configured, you, as parent, have little or no control over the actual use of the device.  You may have iGateWeb or OpenDNS installed on your home network, but if your child’s device has a data package, or access to an open WiFi connection (available at many locations), they have easy access to open internet.

Apps and default browsers.  When configuring parental controls on smartphones and tablets, it is important to restrict what apps users can access and install, as internet filters are usually unable to filter the content accessed with them.  Another thing to remember when configuring these devices is to block the default browser, because the web filtering usually only works on their provided browser.  Other things you will (or should) want to prevent your child from accessing are sites such as iTunes/App store/Google Play, and from making in-app purchases.  The latter is important to prevent your child from incurring large, unexpected costs on your account.  For iOS devices, the restrictions password should be different from the login password so that children cannot turn off the restrictions. Again, using accountability reporting together with parental controls allows you to see what apps are being accessed.

Some parental control features and app restrictions are also found in software programs such as NetNanny and Qustodio, allowing you to use these programs for several different purposes.  However, we strongly suggest you look into other parental control software options as well, as often one program provides features that are not included in another.  The parental controls built into the operating system are free and we recommend using those along with features provided with programs like NetNanny and Qustodio.

 Questions and comments

Why can’t you just recommend a simple solution – one tool that does everything?  Our common workplace and jobsite tools all have their own specific purpose for which they are best suited; we don’t have a single tool that does it all.  Digital ‘tools’ are similar: each has a purpose for which it is best suited, and although tool functionality often overlaps (e.g. a filter that also allows some parental controls), you are best off with a well-stocked (digital) toolbox.  There are situations where you need more than one tool.  For example, if you need to temporarily turn off your filter to access a site or run a program, your accountability software can be left on if these are separate programs.  The best suggestion we currently have for a single program that filters, does accountability reporting, and allows you to set up parental controls is Qustodio.  This is a good program, but it does not filter as well as NetNanny.

Protecting your family online (2)

In our first post we mentioned the importance of knowing the threats presented by the internet, and how these reach your family.  This is the first step for ‘protecting your family online’.   Here we want to discuss:

Step 2: Installing and Configuring Three Essential Tools

To help protect yourself online, all members are asked to use three tools.  Being tools, they are not solutions or to be trusted as perfect.  Like any other tool, they can be used improperly.  Nor does installing these tools absolve us from our parental responsibilities.

Tool 1: Internet Filters

Internet filters are the most common tool for keeping us from accessing inappropriate material.  There are many different internet filters on the market, and some of them are much more effective than others.  Unfortunately all filters will allow some inappropriate material to pass through, and prevent you from accessing some harmless sites.  This is simply due to the nature of internet–there are hundreds of millions of pages of information on the internet, and millions more are added every day.

Some very important considerations when setting up a filter include the ease with which you can bypass it, override a blocked site, turn it off altogether, or uninstall it.  It is also critical that you set it to an appropriate level.  A suitable filter can also block out categories (e.g. Social Networking, sports, gambling) and prevent access to internet browsers that allow you to turn off safe search.

The ideal filter uses dynamic filtering along with URL and keyword filtering.  URL filtering blocks sites with domain names that have been identified and categorized as objectionable.  Keyword filters use certain words and phrases to block sites.  Dynamic filtering uses a much more complex algorithm and evaluates the sites’ content just before it is displayed on your screen.  While it is not always easy to determine if your filter is using dynamic filtering, we strongly recommend you use a filter that uses this method in addition to the simpler URL/keyword blocking.

Filters can be installed on specific devices (i.e. NetNanny) protecting only that device, or protect your entire network by being proxy or ISP based (i.e. iGateWeb).  The benefit of having your filter installed on specific devices is that your laptop or tablet is filtered when connected to a data package or to Wi-Fi provided by your neighbour or a company (e.g. Starbucks).  The benefit of a filter that is ISP based, or proxy based via your router, is that any devices connected to your internet in the home are filtered – including visitors’ devices.  There is usually no clear answer of which method is best for you, and we strongly recommend you use two different filters so that you have both forms of protection.

Two years ago MTAC evaluated a number of different filters and the results showed a very significant range in filtering performance.  The results can be found in the resources section of our website  Many more filters exist than those that were evaluated, and it is difficult to determine the current relevance of these results as small changes to a filtering algorithm can significantly change a filter’s performance.  However, based on these evaluations the RCNA still requires members to use either iGateWeb and/or NetNanny.  Since many of our devices are mobile and have their own data connections, and since wireless tethering/hotspots are easy to implement, we can no longer recommend using only iGateWeb without device specific filters.

A few other filters: Covenant Eyes is appealing because the company provides many excellent resources and has a Christian basis (cf NetNanny, which is secular).  Unfortunately, our evaluation indicates the actual performance of the Covenant Eyes filter is poor and that it cannot be recommended instead of NetNanny or iGateWeb.  K9 Web Protection provides a free filter that appears to be popular (mostly because it is free).  While MTAC has not evaluated this filter, K9 might be a good option to use in conjunction with iGateWeb.  OpenDNS is also a free filter that is set up on your router to provide filtering for everything on your network.  Again, MTAC has not evaluated this filter and it appears to only use URL based filtering.  However, OpenDNS might be a good option to use in combination with NetNanny.

All internet-capable devices, including mobile devices, owned by you and your family members must have a suitable filter.  This implies that for this step in ‘protecting your family online’ you need to research the different options and decide which filters you intend to use.  We understand this can be a very confusing exercise, which is one reason we strongly recommend using NetNanny as the primary filter on all devices.  (NetNanny provides filtering products for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS devices).  In addition to NetNanny, we strongly recommend using a network wide filter such as iGateWeb or OpenDNS.

Once you have decided on the filters you plan to use, you need to download and install this software onto each device you identified in the first brochure, and on your network router.  The filtering software must also be properly configured for different age levels.  We recommend starting with the filter set as strict as possible to minimize underblocking.  As you begin using the filter and find that strictest setting is unworkable, the settings can be modified as necessary.  Obviously different settings will result for different age groups and users.

Questions and Comments

Do I need a filter if I already have virus and malware protection on my computer?  Yes.  There is a lot of different “protection” software out there—and they are designed for different purposes and different markets.  McAfee, Norton, and Kaspersky provide good tools for keeping viruses from your computer, and allow you to set up parental controls.  But they are not designed for filtering out porn and other objectionable material.  Filtering software (e.g. NetNanny) may not give much in terms of anti-virus protection.  Since such programs are often (but not always) compatible with each other, you are best served using both.  Put bluntly, antivirus/ malware software aims to protect your physical and virtual possessions; filters aim to keep you from sin.

What is a good setting for my filter?   As restrictive as you can work with.  Avoid “adult”, “mature” and “18+” settings, as these tend to be far too open.  For your younger children you can set it much lower (i.e. when you have multiple user accounts, you can give your younger children the most restrictive settings that block all video and social networking sites), and give older children and yourself less restrictive access.

Filters are too restrictive and slow.  This is a myth–most current filters do not significantly delay the time it takes to access a site, and limit over-blocking by dynamically filtering sites rather than by categorically blocking access to them.

Protecting your family online (1)

Protecting yourself and your family online is easier to discuss than achieve.  While it is important to install internet filtering and accountability reporting on our computers and smartphones, additional steps are necessary to develop online protection.  Your Consistory would like to provide some information to help you do this.  The guidelines proposed are general, and apply to all members, but how you implement them will depend on your particular family—e.g. the age of your children and nature of your work.  An attempt is made to keep the information simple, which means the more tech-savvy reader will find it limited.  However, it is hoped the general guidelines described here will be helpful to those readers also, and help give them some direction as to what the Consistory requires.  The information presented here is not original, and more detailed how-to guides are available on our website,

Four steps

According to some popular guides, ‘protecting your family online’ has four components, or steps:

  1. Taking inventory of your electronic devices that can access the internet
  2. Installing and configuring three essential tools
  3. Staying informed
  4. Family discussions

We hope to discuss these steps and address some related questions and comments in several short brochures.

Step 1: Taking Inventory

Before you can protect yourself online, you need to know the threats presented by the internet, and know how these reach you and your children.

What is out there? 

Most are aware that the internet, while extremely useful and necessary to our current way of life, can be used to very easily access material that is dangerous to both our material and spiritual wellbeing.  Threats include viewing of porn and violence, being cyberbullied or stalked by online predators, online gaming and gambling, unnecessary trolling for information, watching sports and movies and other objectionable videos, listening to unacceptable music, etc.  One does not need the internet to be exposed to, or do any of this, but the internet has made these things much more accessible, especially for our children.  There is an abundance of information warning about the dangers mentioned above, written by people from many different religious (and secular) persuasions.  Some of this information is available on our website.  Unfortunately not all members appreciate the severity of this threat to our community, but the dangers cannot be overstated.

How do we access this material?

The material mentioned above can be accessed through any device with an internet connection.  These devices include smartphones, home computers, and tablets—those owned by you and your children and those owned by their friends. This easy accessibility means that our young children can access, or involuntarily be exposed to indescribably vulgar and gruesome material.

What devices are in your home, and do your children have access to? 

How can you and your children access the internet, and how do you protect your family from these threats?  For a dyke to be effective it needs to be complete.  In this context this means that, as far as is in your control, all the internet-capable devices in your home and that you access at your work should be filtered.  It might be helpful to make a list of these devices, and behind each one jot down what protection is currently provided, who in your family uses it and when, and where this device is most often used.  It might alarm you if an entry read, “Mom’s smartphone / no filter / all kids, whenever they want it / on the bus, at their after-school jobs, and when they are at friends at night”.

Regarding protection, your checklist should also state if you have parental controls (e.g. child specific user accounts with time limits), and accountability reporting set up.  What happens outside your supervision is obviously much more difficult to control, which we will return to later.  It is not uncommon for children to access objectionable material via un(der)-filtered internet, and to share– through cloud storage, USB’s, etc.–this with others who do have proper filtering at home.  Allowing kids in both homes to watch hours of movies (or worse) weekly.

Taking Inventory–what devices are used by you and your family?

Device (in home, in car, at work)

Type of filter, filter setting

Who uses it?  Where is it used?

Parental Controls set up?  (e.g. time limits)

Accountability tracking activated?

e.g. Home Computer (main) NetNanny.  Child setting for kids, 18+ for parents Everyone in the house (mom, dad, kids);

In the house

Yes, separate user accounts for younger children Yes, for each user account separately