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    Steps to kid-proof your home computer

    by Alan Zisman (c) 2005 First published in Business in Vancouver June 21-27, 2005; issue 817

    High Tech Office column

    While we're at work, for many of us the computers on our desk are under the care and protection of an ever-vigilant IT staff, working hard behind the scenes to keep our computers (and their network) intruder-free.

    Then we go home, maybe lugging a notebook or with a desktop that also lets us extend our workweek.

    You may think your kids know more about computers and the Internet than you. Certainly most kids take technology for granted and happily spend hours playing games, chatting with their friends online or otherwise facing the glowing screens.

    The problem is that kids are just too believing, too trusting. And even the smartest of them rarely take the time to read the fine print. So when that online game requires the latest version of Macromedia's Shockwave plug-in they'll click Next on each setup screen without paying attention to the details. That will install Shockwave (a good thing) but also install Shockwave's corporate sponsor, the Yahoo toolbar, which you may or may not want.

    Or an ad on a webpage they're visiting will scream "Your computer is in danger. Click here." And they'll click there, not realizing that they've just installed spyware that reports back on everywhere they (and you) go online.

    Or one of their online chat buddies sends them a file. They'll install it, loading a program letting their "friend," or a friend of a friend of a friend access your computer. Or they'll open a virus-bearing e-mail attachment.

    If you're the only one using your home computer, there's a chance that you're cautious enough to survive in the online minefield. If you've got a Windows computer and kids at home, however, it's almost certain that your computer is infested with a variety of spyware, viruses, worms and more.

    And then you take that infected laptop back to work, plugging it into your employer's network.

    You could get the kids a computer of their own, replacing it every couple of years as it becomes unusable. Or get the kids a virus and spyware-free Mac, though they'll complain that there isn't the same range of games available, and that they can't run copies of their friends' pirated software. But maybe those are good things.

    In many homes, that's not an option. But if your kids are going to be using your (Windows) system, a few kid-proofing steps will limit the havoc they can inadvertently wreak. If you're running Windows 98 or ME, though, these don't apply: these systems are insecure by design.

    Windows 2000 and XP, however, were designed for multiple users. But for ease of use, your computer may simply start itself up and automatically log-on a default user. If so, change that. Go to the Control Panel and open the User Accounts item. Create new accounts for each person that uses your computer, including you. (Win2000 users use the Computer Management program in the Administrative Tools folder). Make sure that your account has a password, and has the account type set to Computer Administrator. Set your kids' account type to Limited. Limited users cannot, in many cases, alter system settings or install software - particularly software that tries to alter the way the computer system works. Each user has his or her own My Documents folder. Limited users can't access your saved documents. (A tip: if you want to let your kids install an otherwise blocked program, right-click on it, choose Run As from the pop-up menu, and enter your user name and password).

    This isn't a total solution. You should still do the regular security stuff: install firewall, antivirus, and antispyware software, and keep them (and your operating system) up to date.

    But limiting your kids' ability to blithely install stuff on your home/work computer is a good first step.

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