Desktop: A better way to spy

Is Microsoft Vista's 'parental control' an infringement of privacy or a blessed technological tool?

vista 3d 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Microsoft)
vista 3d 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Microsoft)
Some people will upgrade to the newly released Microsoft Vista because they think it's cool to have the latest and greatest computer stuff. To them we say, good luck, and we're not at all jealous that you've got the disposable income to buy not only a new operating system, but most likely a new computer, as well ( But when the rest of us finally decide make the change, it's probably not going to be for Vista's fancy graphics or networking capabilities. The biggest selling point in Vista for most people is going to be something that kids - the arbiters of cool - would probably find very uncool indeed: Parental Controls ( Built into the new operating system is nothing less than a sophisticated spying system that gives parents what they really want when it comes to their cyberized kids: an easy-to-use method allowing you to see what your kids do on-line, with the information delivered in an easy-to-understand report, easy set up and administration, and tight, flexible and transparent (i.e. the kids don't know they're being watched) controls. Until now, you had to install several third-party programs to get this kind of monitoring power, and pay often hefty subscription charges for the services. The new Parental Controls provides an incentive - the most important one, for many people - to pay the hundreds of shekels to upgrade from Windows XP to Vista. Even if your current computer can't take advantage of some of Vista's glitzier features, like the Aero graphics system (, you'll still be able to take advantage of Parental Controls. But there's good news for those who don't want to upgrade just yet: You, too, can enjoy the ease and freedom of automatic reports and easy-to-manage safety settings for your kids - both on the Web and via instant messaging. In fact, if you've got Windows XP installed on your computer and you want to try out the Parental Controls aspect of Vista, Microsoft is glad to oblige. That's right: You can install a version of the final Microsoft Parental Controls on your XP-equipped computer, for free. Vista, having been under development for several years, released certain aspects of the final OS piecemeal as beat versions, before all the technologies were wrapped up into the final release that Microsoft began selling a couple of weeks ago. The Parental Controls beta is still available, and you can sign up for it at Once signed up, you can designate which users you want to monitor on your PC (each user must have his own separate account; see instructions at You can set up various levels of monitoring for users and specify the criteria to avoid or report (obscene language, Web chats, mature content, bomb making, etc.). You can also list specific sites you don't want the kids to surf to. When you want to check your kids' activity, you go to the Parental Controls site (you link to it from the icon on your menu bar after installing the software). The main concern most parents have when it comes to their kids' on-line activities, though, is the trouble young surfers can get into with chat programs, like Instant Messenger and ICQ. If you want to know what goes on in some of these conversations, the Web site of the free chat monitoring program called IMSafer ( will give you some scary looking examples of what these conversations look like. Fortunately, IMSafer can help you monitor these conversations. You sign up and install a piece of software on your computer, similar to the MS system, and monitor their conversations via a Web site (IMSafer will also e-mail you when an alert is issued). IMSafer works with the major messenger programs (MSN Messenger, AIM, etc.), and is free right now - although they are planning to offer enhancements for a fee, such as Myspace page monitoring. The site says they can't be too specific on what their criteria for what constitutes a "dangerous conversation" are - bad people might write software to avoid being nabbed by their algorithms - but, you can more or less figure out what kind of messages are going to be marked, based on information on the site. As more Internet horror stories about predators and other such lowlifes emerge, fewer parents have qualms about "spying" on their kids using these kinds of programs. But is it really spying? The IMSafer people say no: "If you are using AIM, MSN or Yahoo for your IM client, you already have the ability to save the conversation to a text file and pretty much do whatever you want with it," IMSafer says. And the same holds true for Parental Controls; all of the data about who surfs where is already on your PC, and implementing a tool to gather the data that is already there is smart, not invasive. Even if it could be considered a violation of individual rights, though, I think most people looking to protect their kids on-line would agree with my mother, who, when I used to protest against some policy that I didn't approve of, would tell me (in a rather loud voice) that "this is not a democracy."