Why IS there a cat on the ceiling fan?
By now, I am sure you are asking yourself what a cat, a ceiling fan and computer security for parents have in common.
Well, a cat hanging on a ball of yarn attached to a ceiling fan was what started this whole adventure of ‘how to keep children safe on the Internet’. And what ultimately resulted is this book.
But let me back up a bit. First and foremost, I’m a parent, a very concerned parent. I’m concerned because several years ago I realized something – you know that ‘stranger danger’ talk we all have with our kids about not talking to strangers? Well, that little talk is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to keeping kids safe. Now we have new cell phones and social media networks popping up every day, with features that make it easier to chat, create videos and share images than ever before.
Think Facebook and Instagram are it? Nope, there are hundreds of popular sites your kids can be hanging out at. This alarms me and I’m a computer guy who’s been online since the early 90’s. I keep up with new trends when it comes to the Internet. Or at least I try to. You see, I’ve been working in and around the computer industry for over 20 years – the last 10 have been on the ‘security’ side. When my own children were born I knew that at least the security part of home Internet was something I did not have to worry about. I had been securing computers for a decade, so at home, computer security would be no big deal. Or so I thought…
Like you, I was, and still am, eager to give my kids access to technology to learn from and to have fun with. So when my daughter was approaching 6 years old, I figured this spare computer we had lying around would be perfect for her. She could play with the Nickelodeon, Webkinz and Disney sites on the Internet and also use some educational CD’s we had bought specifically for her.
I configured her pc so that the only sites she was able to go to were the ones I specifically allowed. I spent the better part of a weekend cleaning, locking down and testing that computer until I was sure it was completely safe for her to use.
I thought I had done pretty good. And for four years, these steps worked without a hitch.
My world changed one day when my daughter yells from her room upstairs
“Daaaaaaddy! My computer is broken.”
You know something is wrong when you hear that annoyed yet slightly panicked undertone in their little voice.
What the heck did she do now? And why is she not coming down to tell me?
So, I do the obvious… I yell back: “What’s wrong with your computer?”
Really annoyed yelling from upstairs: “I can’t get to the Internet.”
How in the world can she not get on the net? I’m surfing just fine on my iPad? Okay, did she really break it? Naw, she couldn’t have … could she?
Alright, fine… I’m leaping up the stairs walking into her room.
“Dad, I swear I didn’t do anything wrong but I can’t get on the Internet?”
So I’m checking her computer, webkinz comes right up, Disney wants to offer me fashion tips from Belle (Wait til my wife finds out!). So there doesn’t seem to be a problem.
Then I ask her, “What website are you trying to get to?”
“YouTube,” she answers.
“Honey,” I tell her, “your computer is not broken. Some of the videos on YouTube are really not appropriate for a child your age, so it has been blocked from your computer.”
She gets THAT glum look and asks, “Dad, what does appropriate mean?”
I respond with the best answer I can think of, “Appropriate means they are videos not made for kids your age – kind of like a movie that you shouldn’t watch.”
This answer was met with a pout. I knew my girl didn’t like being told she was too young or too small for ANYTHING!
“But Daaaad, I was trying to look at Dolphin videos for my book report” (Rut Roh, she pulled the quadruple ‘A’ DAD card with school work tossed on top of it!)
So, here was the safe alternative I negotiate, “Hey, if you come downstairs, we can all look for these dolphin videos on the family computer together and find the ones you’re looking for.”
Yeah! I hosed down that little fire quite nicely, even though I knew hours of Dolphin, Selena Gomez and Bon Jovi, videos were in my future. Okay, it could be worse – groan – Justin Bieber… She REALLY doesn’t like Justin Bieber!
Bon Jovi? My wife and I must have done something right somewhere?!!!
However, I felt pretty darn good about myself at that particular moment!
My daughter tried to go somewhere on the Internet she was not supposed to be and my security work had paid off—VICTORY!!!!
As we are walking downstairs, visions of the ‘Father of the Year’ award are dancing through my mind.
Yeah! I’m all THAT and a bag of chips…
But nine months later, it sparked again.
This time my daughter comes running to my computer desk, squealing in delight, “Daddy, Daddy, you’ve got to look at this!”
I look up confused, “What is it?”
With pride, she shoves her iPod touch into my face.
To get a good visual of exactly what I was seeing, picture an ordinary, spinning ceiling fan… Then add in a ball of yarn, caught on one of the blades of the fan. Then add in a curious cat. One video clip later and you have the famous video.
I watched the swirling feline go around and around before violently slamming into the wall. I have to admit, I was laughing and stunned at the same time.
But not to worry, the video in question was actually a trick photography advertising pitch to Nokia by an Australian ad agency in 2003. Yes, Nokia didn’t think it was funny either when the animal rights group came calling.
After the video, I put down my daughter’s iPod Touch. In that moment, it hit me that I had completely missed something—something big. And it wasn’t a video. Or even that I should somehow protect our own cat from a similar fate now that my daughter had seen this little trick.
Nope. As she walked out of the room I was at a loss for words. This simple video that my daughter was watching on YouTube on her iPod was a major security loophole that I had not even considered.
You see, my daughter had received an iPod Touch from her grandparents for Christmas. Shortly after she’d gotten it, I was downloading some educational apps on the device, so I entered the wifi password to put the iPod on the home network. I had locked her iPods web browser so she couldn’t actually surf the Internet. But it never occurred to me that YouTube is actually considered a separate application within iTunes and therefore has to be denied separately.
I had focused on protecting the computer, but didn’t give this mobile device the same concern.
As soon as I entered that wifi password, I basically gave my daughter unfiltered access to anything available on YouTube.
The day after the now-infamous Cat on the Ceiling Fan incident, I was sharing the tale with my co-workers. And most of them realized they were guilty of the same oversight.
Then our “security brains” kicked in – and we became like a pack of hungry dogs, remembering the days of being 16-year-old, hormone-ridden teenagers trying to find the “forbidden VHS tapes” or magazines. Of course, now they use the Internet.
We started swapping ideas on how a crafty kid could bypass the parental controls we had in place. We talked about the various devices in our homes that could give a kid access to the Internet in ways we hadn’t previously considered—every computer, cell phone, video gaming system and even DVD players nowadays. Minutes into this mental exercise, we were surprised at the number of gaps in our home networks.
Thus began my research, and my journey down the rabbit hole. I read everything I could find, and came to realize that this wasn’t just an issue facing “parents of computer geeks”–it was a challenge for every parent out there.
The more I researched, the scarier it became–things that our kids come in contact with every minute they are online, whether at home or on a mobile device. Scams. Malware. Porn.
These are the things we encounter, every day and tune out but what about them?
From my perspective, this book had to be written.
Kids rely on their parents for guidance, protection and their overall well-being. You owe it to your kids to keep them safe from viruses that could destroy their computer’s operating system, from the cyber bullies who use the Internet as a weapon, and from the thieves who can slip in and steal your personal information and use it in ways that could scare the pants off you.
They expect us to have the answers to their questions—whether they like our solutions or not. They need to know that we’re looking out for them, but not stalking (at least, not that they can see). And the only way to protect them from the dangers of the Internet is to learn where these threats are hiding—some of them in plain sight.
If we as computer security professionals have trouble keeping our networks secure and, more importantly, up to date, what’s a normal non-technical parent to do?
That’s why I decided to write this book.
In order to keep you awake more than 10 minutes while reading it, each chapter will have sort of a ‘personal, what happened here?’ to it that hopefully will make the technical stuff all the easier to digest.
There’s a lot to learn, so I invite you to download the first chapter for free.