PC Nanny brings basic security to PC desktop

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Toronto Computes, October 1999

PC Nanny
Net Nanny International

When you start up Windows 95 or 98 for the first time you?re confronted with a log-in prompt, asking for user and name and password.

And it looks like you?re entering a secure network. Right?

Surprise?this is just an illusion. If you enter a new name and then type anything you want for a password, the system happily lets you in, creating a new user account for you. Or if you just press the Escape key, the system again happily lets you in.

Pretty secure? Not!

And once they?re logged in someone can do pretty much whatever they want?change the display, fiddle with the Control Panel, wander through all the drives on the system, add and delete icons from the Start Menu? in general, have a lot of fun or do a lot of damage, accidentally or otherwise.

That?s well and good if you?re the only user on the computer. But often, that?s not the case. Millions of computers get used by multiple users?at work, in schools or libraries, or in homes.

Win95/98 isn?t quite a total loss, however. The thoughtful gnomes of Redmond created a security application?the System Policy Editor (aka Poledit), and then buried it in the deepest folders on the Win9x installation CD. And didn?t bother to give users a simple way to install it. And only documented it in disjointed sections of the Windows Resource Kit (also hidden on the CD). Poledit works, but it?s so powerful that it?s dangerous?I know several users who, while trying to secure their computer locked themselves out, and ended up having to re-format and start all over. Don?t say I didn?t warn you.

Vancouver company, Net Nanny Software International, Inc. is best known for Net Nanny?a program allowing parents or others to control where a child can go on the Internet. They?ve recently added PC Nanny to their product line, a program designed to put limits on what a user can do to the computer he or she is using.

Aiming primarily at parents, PC Nanny is a simple little program. When run for the first time, it asks for a password (and unlike Windows, it actually requires one!). After that, all you get is a small dialogue box with a few tabs?fewer than a dozen optional settings, to provide damage control to your PC.

The Control Panel tab offers options to turn off the Display Control Panel, along with Device Manager, and Hardware Profiles from the System Control Panel. The user can fiddle with the mouse controls or the system sounds, but can?t access these most basic system controls.
The Drives tab lets the administrator show or hide drives?turn off access to the hard drive and there?s no way your little devil can accidentally delete your data. The Start Menu tab lets you turn off access to the DOS prompt, the Find and Run menus, and the Taskbar settings. An Administration tab lets you change the password, and that?s it!

Elegantly simple. If you want access to those items, simply open PC Nanny, and remove the checkmarks.

There?s one more ?hidden? feature. After installing PC Nanny, an option to encrypt a file is added to the right-click popup menu. Files can only be encrypted after entering the adminstrative password, so only the adminstrator can secure them from casual eyes. The encrypted file?s icon changes to a padlock?to open it, you need to right-click on it, and choose Decrypt from the popup menu. Users can delete encrypted files, however.

PC Nanny is affordable, easy to use, and offers a collection of powerful features that can provide parents and others who are in charge of shared computers the peace of mind of knowing that their stored data and computer setup are safer.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan