The Internet is not the private place it once was. There are many online identifiers that can be used to track individuals, from IP addresses to social networking profiles. Unfortunately, children are particularly susceptible to being tracked online. Some of that tracking is benign (for example, tracking progress in an online quiz), while in other cases it’s more disturbing (such as collecting the personally identifiable information of your children and then targeting them with unsolicited ads).
[This is a guest post from Cyrus Nemati, web producer at the Center for Democracy & Technology.]
Kids are, by nature, exploratory – especially GeekKids. If left to their own devices, children will lift up every stone on the Internet to see what kind of techno-creepy crawlies lurk underneath, and we should encourage that behavior as much as possible in ways that capture their spirit of adventure and exploration; however, the reality of today’s Internet is that curious kids also leave tracks wherever they go. These tracks can’t be easily cleaned, but you can make sure your own child is wearing some protective metaphorical booties (perhaps with metaphorical Ninja Turtles on them).
In this new monthly column GeekDad has graciously extended to me, I will take you on a tour of sorts, call it “window shopping,” for these “booties” by reviewing relevant browser plug-ins that put control of your child’s privacy back where it belongs: in their hands (or yours, if you happen to be the one turning the dials). Although it would be nice not to have to resort to non-default methods, these plug-ins – for now – are the best way to take back your privacy, until a comprehensive consumer privacy law is passed. So without further ado, let’s begin with this month’s two plug-in reviews.
The name of this plug-in, which you can pronounce as “Fzilla” or “P H Zilla” (which would be a pretty cool name for a DJ), gives little indication as to what PhZilla actually does. My guess, however, is that the P stands for “proxy,” since PhZilla’s function is to reroute websites through a proxy server. The appeal of using a proxy server is that it will mask your browsing actions. It does this by taking you through a third party to reach your requested website (as opposed to your going to the website directly); this makes it look as if the proxy server – not your computer – is visiting the site. In other words, instead of you personally making an appearance on a website, you allow the proxy server to escort you in its name.
Why does this matter, you ask? When you do almost anything online, your IP address (the identifier assigned to you by your Internet Service Provider) will reach out to another server to access content. This IP address can be tracked indefinitely, building a “profile” for it composed of your browsing history, including some information about where you are. It won’t reveal an exact location, but it can come very close. This isn’t a concern for most people, but if you’re concerned about a possible ex stalking you or your kids, or just prefer to maintain your privacy, a proxy is not a totally crazy idea.
PhZilla makes it easy to use public proxy servers. Once the add-on is installed, you can browse with it simply by right-clicking a hyperlink and then selecting “Open with PhZilla,” and the website will be called through a proxy server. If you’re already on a website, you can click a little flag () that shows up in your status bar, which will re-render the site you are currently viewing through a proxy.
Although PhZilla works well and is very easy to use, there’s a major Achilles heel. PhZilla uses common public proxies (coincidentally, the kind your child might already use to access Facebook at school – if you’ve managed to raise a geeky enough child). These proxies appear and disappear without notice, so at any point, your proxy could fail during a browsing session – leaving your true IP address naked to the world, or at least the current website. Even more concerning is that one can never know who the proxy operator is at a given time. As a rule, it’s best to pay for a proxy and know what you’re getting, so I would suggest using PhZilla in a pinch, but not as a long-term solution.
A proxy, on a technical level, is very private. A proxy won’t save you if you’ve decided to give personally identifiable information to every website you come across (e.g., filling in your dogster.com profile with your home address, phone number, and medical history), but using a proxy server means your IP can’t be tracked easily by common web browsing.
Ease of Use
PhZilla allows you to right-click a hyperlink to open it via a proxy server, which is useful, and it also allows you to reload your current page through a proxy. However, I was not able to find a setting to load all sites through a proxy. One can’t expect a child to patiently load every page through a proxy manually, so this is a notable omission.
There are plenty of proxy-related add-ons around, so it’s not entirely unique. PhZilla doesn’t require prior knowledge of proxy server locations, however, which is a helpful feature for those who don’t want to spend time finding a functional public proxy.
Web of Trust
Web of Trust is a browser plug-in tied to a website that supplies peer reviews of websites for trustworthiness, vendor reliability, privacy, and child safety. The Firefox plug-in for Web of Trust makes it very easy to access a site review right from within your search results. A small colored circle will show you at a quick glance how well the site is rated. Green is good, yellow is not so good, and red is a website you’d probably rather not have in your history.
If you click on this circle, you’ll get the website’s more detailed scorecard, shown here.
As you can see, CDT is rated as quite trustworthy. Why all those numbers are not at 100%, I am not sure. I can only assume that this small percentage of people hate freedom. And privacy.
Web of Trust doesn’t really offer any privacy or child safety tools on its own, but it gives you a large resource of reviews to help you determine whether or not a site should be visited at all.
Ease of Use
Web of Trust integrates well with Google and Bing, offering at-a-glance site reviews within search results by displaying an icon next to hyperlinks. The red/yellow/green rating system employed in this function, however, could be a little more nuanced.
There are other websites dedicated to peer reviews of other websites, but none so well-integrated into web-browsing as Web of Trust. A tool such as this is truly useful only if it is easy to access, and Web of Trust fills that void admirably.
There you have it: two new tools in your arsenal with which you can defend your child against dark forces on the Internet. If you’re curious about what else you can do, check out CDT’s Take Back Your Privacy campaign for privacy tips and to let Congress know you want the law on your side when it comes to online privacy.