Friday, April 8, 2011

Safe Surfing and Apps

It is fascinating how quickly new Internet services and now mobile devices and apps pop up.  It used to take years for innovation to take root and spread whereas now it seems every week there’s something new to be aware of.  There is so much power and convenience in these tools, what’s not to like!  Well, there are dangers lurking amongst the gems…

I’ve been immersed in and managing my organization’s way through a serious issue related to online pornography.  Being a school District, we take issues like this very seriously.  I can’t provide many specifics (read this newspaper article for more information) iStock_000001398345XSmallbut the gist of the problem is that an individual created a website on a free web hosting service and dedicated the site to serving pornographic images and videos.  Through pure coincident and how search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo work, that person’s inappropriate (horrific actually) images are automatically being intermingled with pictures from our school and District websites.  We are a school District that has not previously invested in web filtering technology, rather our approach has been to focus on education and supervision.  With this current issue and a few recent encounters last year with pornography accessed in schools by students, we feel the need to increase protection beyond what our Government Internet provider has in place.  It’s just too easy today, even with a perfectly innocent search, to stumble upon inappropriate content very quickly.  I wouldn’t classify that as a “teachable moment” for a child!

We are making a concerted effort to create a highly accessible user friendly set of resources called Digital Responsibility Guidelines.  We will train and orientate our Principals, Teachers, and staff on how to use them.  Guidance for educators is included for helping students be digitally responsible as well.  We also see using these resources to support parents in their supervision of their children’s use of online services outside of school.  A key section of the guidelines is dedicated to scenarios.  We anticipate that scenarios (probably implemented in a wiki) will be added over time by schools, perhaps parents as well, to provide advice to other schools and parents on how to deal with tricky online situations.

But, education, resources, and support are insufficient in this evolving online world.  We will hopefully be able to acquire and implement some network management tools to help us cleanse the content that students access.  New tools allow content filtering based on very flexible criteria.  One such criteria would be the type of user.  For example we have students identified as a group and could further distinguish them by level (elementary, middle, and secondary).  This would allow different types of policies for students by level and as well different again for teachers and staff.  It is impossible to deal with the complexity of how inappropriate websites are created and certainly how search engines cache and serve images and video through “traditional” filtering techniques.  Fortunately modern tools make this relatively “easy” to do without over filtering – ie, our District’s philosophy is to fundamentally allow open Internet use so we need to be very surgical in how we provide needed protection.

Another area that parents should be concerned about is the proliferation of apps used on iPhones, iPads, iPods, Android devices, and Windows Phones.  Many apps include location aware features.  imageWhat that means is the app can determine the users location on planet earth, much like a GPS can.  You may have seen location indicators on some people’s tweets.  Clicking on the yellow indicator in the example here takes you to a google map showing his exact location at the time he posted the tweet.  SNAGHTML1a6c83e9This is perfectly fine if they’re an adult like @chrisj_moore.

Seems innocent enough hey?  But wait, what if your 15 year old daughter is snapping photos of herself and her friends and uploading them to Facebook, Twitter, or Flickr.  If the “GPS” feature is turned on, it’s possible that the photos will be tagged with your daughter’s

iflickr-geotag.png

location.  Someone tracking photo uploads can capture location tagged photos and see them on a map!  Some applications also track and update the mobile device users location in real time - they can literally find your daughter!  Parents should be aware of what apps their kids are using and how they are configured.  In my opinion an underage person should never have location awareness turned on for an app.  If an app won’t install without that – they shouldn’t use the app.  For some apps, the risks and dangers far outweigh any perceived benefit.

My advice for school Districts is to allow as open as possible access to online content and tools but think about what your students can accidentally or intentionally access.  Ask yourself if you think their parents would be comfortable with what they might see.  If not, you need to think about investing in modern filtering tools.  For parents, my advice is to be fully aware of the tools, services, apps that are on the Internet and mobile devices.  Have the critical conversations with your kids.  Supervise their use of these tools.  For some great resources, check out my colleague Dave Sand’s work on Parenting the Net Generation.  Do you really think a young person is safe with their own wireless laptop in their bedroom?  Think about questions like that and be sure your kids are safe in this amazing digital world.