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Digital Life
This story was first published in Digital Life on June 4, 2014

Parental controls to monitor how children use Internet: Filtering tools tested for effectiveness

Many parents are unsure how to protect their kids from undesirable Web content. That may be about to change, with the recent MDA recommendations

Published on Jun 6, 2014 5:00 AM

This story was first published in The Straits Times Digital Life on June 4, 2014

SINGAPORE - The Internet is for porn," sings a character in the musical Avenue Q. This lyric perfectly sums up the widespread sentiment among many Internet users. But there is more to worry about than lewd content. There are also websites that peddle illegal drugs and weapons.

More can be done to protect young and impressionable people from such content, judging from a recent set of recommendations by the Media Development Authority (MDA).

It has proposed five major changes that it hopes will increase public awareness of the parental controls offered by local Internet service providers, or ISPs.

MDA wants ISPs to offer free basic parental controls to help parents monitor how their children use the Internet. The ISPs now charge between $2 and $5 a month for these "value-added services".

Since 2012, local ISPs have been required to offer such tools to subscribers as an add-on when they sign up or renew their mobile or home broadband plans. But adoption rates are a "low" 100,000, according to MDA.

Making controls easy to install

In focus group discussions held by MDA last December, some parents could not recall if their ISPs had told them about parental controls. It also revealed that parents were concerned about the cost of subscription to such a service and whether the software would be easy to install.

Bolstering these findings, a recent poll by security firm Trend Micro found that less than 30 per cent of subscribers install such curbs on devices used to access the Internet, although more than 70 per cent of parents said they were concerned about their children accessing inappropriate content online.

On the ease of installation, MDA recommends that ISPs switch on the parental controls when subscribers sign up and provide guides to help users activate these services.

Mr Terrence Tang, a senior director at Trend Micro, said: "This move will help protect children from potential cyberthreats and increase awareness among their parents."

It would put Singapore in line with other countries such as Britain.

The parents that Digital Life spoke to welcomed the proposed measures and said they would subscribe if they were free. But while they think such curbs are useful, they know that they are not foolproof.

Mr Eugene Low, 39, a manager, who has two young children, said: "Kids usually see out-of-bound items as challenges. Getting the message across that one should be careful on the Internet and differentiating between right and wrong might be the better option."

Recognising this, MDA said it supports programmes that promote media literacy, cyberwellness and Internet safety among students and parents.

Public consultations for these recommendations ended last month. If given the green light, these measures will likely be introduced early next year.

To find out whether parental controls actually block undesirable content, we tried out existing solutions from the three big ISPs.


M1 Internet Security

$3.75 a month (free for first three months), valid for up to three computers; $1.61 a month for each additional computer

Unlike SingTel or StarHub, M1 does not offer stand-alone parental-control software.

Instead, the advertised M1 Internet Security plan provides subscribers with Trend Micro's Titanium Internet Security.

This is a general security software suite (for PC and Mac) that protects users against all spyware, phishing and computer viruses. Parental controls are part of this package.

You can upgrade to the M1 Maximum Internet Security plan for $5 a month (right; $2.50 a month for each additional system). This gets you more features to protect your PC, including a secure vault for your files and an Android phone app.

But both versions have fairly basic parental controls.

Like other tools, it blocks websites by categories. There are three age-group profiles but you can customise the categories to be blocked. It has a time-restriction feature which is similar to other parental-control software.

The software can restrict apps on the computer, but you have to manually specify them. What is good is that you can directly enter the administrator password for any blocked website or app to access it quickly without having to dive into the software settings. YouTube and P2P file-sharing sites were blocked correctly, as were pornography websites. But the app does not block forums or sites where nude pictures could be posted by users.

Google SafeSearch was not turned on despite the app claiming that it enables this automatically.

It also does not filter secure (https) websites. Social networks were not restricted, though chat clients, such as WeChat and ICQ, were.

If you want a more thorough solution, Trend Micro has a pricey tool called Online Guardian (US$49.95, or S$63, for a year) with more features, especially for monitoring social-networking usage.

  • Parental controls appear to be more of an afterthought in this general security suite.

Mobiflock Parental Control

US$3.95 (S$4.95) a month or US$38.95 per year

 For mobile devices, M1's Internet Filtering webpage lists three solutions for Android, iOS and BlackBerry platforms. The telco does not sell these apps, but offers download links instead.

Of the three, the most impressive is Mobiflock Parental Control (Android, iOS and BlackBerry). It does more than the typical software. It allows you to track the location of the mobile device and block calls and messages from specific contacts in the address book.

I installed the Android version on my phone and then proceeded to log into its Web-based dashboard. The dashboard overview is very useful as it displays the various blocked websites attempted by your child and the device's latest location.

The standard curbs are all present. You can customise the list of categories blocked by the app, but the child must use the Mobiflock Safe Browser installed with the app for the filtering to work.

As the app can also block third-party browsers, this is not an issue. It was able to block most sites I tried except for forums, and it did turn on SafeSearch for Google Image search.

You can lock down the child's use of the phone at certain times, but you can also set certain contacts and websites to be accessible at all times for emergencies. The phone's camera can also be disabled.

Mobiflock has a geo-fencing option. This lets you pre-set a location and notify you if the device (that is, the child) arrives or leaves that area. Removing the SIM card from the phone will trigger an alert. You will then be notified of the phone number of the new SIM and the current location of the device.

The app lets you remotely trigger certain features on the phone. Besides deleting the phone's data if the device gets lost, the app can remotely trigger a loud phone siren, which would certainly give a thief quite a scare.

  • A powerful app to monitor and safeguard a child’s mobile device. But it does not come cheap.



SingTel Family Protection

$3 a month, valid for up to three PCs

 For home broadband users, SingTel has partnered with McAfee to offer its Family Protection software. Sign up for this add-on service via your SingTel account and download the McAfee app on your PC (not supported for Mac).

Up to three computers can be protected for the $3 monthly subscription.

Feature-wise, Family Protection is the best of the bunch (for PCs) from the major Internet service providers (ISPs).

It is very comprehensive. Besides blocking websites, the app can restrict access to games, streaming video, instant messaging, social networks and even music with objectionable lyrics.

A useful Wizard tool guides first-time users through the set-up, which involves creating an administrator password and customising the app.

Do not forget the password as it is required if you want to uninstall the app or change any settings.

There are four default profiles, each customised for a range of ages. Generally, the older the child, the fewer the websites blocked (the number of blocked categories decreases). At the highest protection level, even e-commerce sites, such as Amazon, will be blocked. But you can allow specific websites to bypass the filter.

For social networks, you can register personal information with the app. If your child sends a message on a social network containing such information, the app will alert you via e-mail and log the message too.

Such e-mail alerts can be configured for when the app detects your child trying to access a blocked site. Activity reports with the URLs of the blocked websites can be generated on a daily or weekly basis.

As with any tool, Family Protection is not perfect. Google's image search still throws up plenty of nude content, though other software also failed here.

The app may also block legitimate news websites, if they happen to be about objectionable topics.

  • The best PC solution from local ISPs. No support for Macs, though.

Mobile Internet Filter

$3.21 a month for each phone number, up to a maximum of five (for $16.05)

For SingTel users, the telco provides a network-level filter. It is available only to SingTel postpaid customers. They can sign up via the My SingTel mobile app or the IDEAS website on the mobile browsers of their devices. Dialling *643 also works.

The Mobile Internet filter works for up to five SingTel phone numbers ($3 for each number). It is supported for all SingTel mobile broadband services, including secondary SIM cards. But it currently does not work on BlackBerry devices.

Setting up the filter is slightly different. You do not install any apps. The service is tied to the SingTel mobile number and the idea is that the parents' phone number will be used to control up to five other numbers, presumably owned by their children.

Subscribers log into their SingTel accounts, select the Mobile Internet Filter option and enter a phone number to secure. An SMS will be sent to that number and the child needs to accept the service to activate it.

Compared with device-based solutions, the Mobile Internet Filter is fairly basic. It blocks only websites, not games or apps.

There are just two age groups - below 12, and 13 to 18. Like other parental controls, it blocks websites by categories. Changing to the older age setting simply reduces the number of restricted categories.

The filter can set time curbs on Internet access. You can set up to three different profiles to block access during certain time periods. Other features include an SMS alert to tell you if your child has tried to access a blocked website and a report (up to a month's worth) of all such attempts.

The biggest problem was that I could not customise which websites to allow or block. You cannot even change the categories for each age group. And, of course, if the child switches to a Wi-Fi network, the filter will not work.

  • Limited functionality, but no installation required.




Free till Dec 31; $2.68 a month thereafter

 StarHub offers two versions of a network-based solution called SafeSurf.

SafeSurf Online is for home broadband connections; SafeSurf on Mobile for phones and tablets.

You do not need to install any apps on the devices, but the filter works only when you are on StarHub's network.

I tested the filters on a StarHub cable broadband connection. The company told me the mobile version uses the same filtering technology, so the results should be identical. The only difference is that it is optimised for mobile browsers.

The interface is simple as StarHub's software is very basic. It blocks websites with unsuitable content (above) in 15 categories ranging from discussion forums to Internet security threats.

That is it. There is no way to set time or usage limits. It cannot block apps or games. Nor does it send alerts to parents.

The blacklist is maintained by an external vendor, BrightCloud.

Users can add specific sites to block or allow certain sites to bypass the filter. They can also configure a password to enable access, presumably for the parent.

Conveniently enough, you can enter this password when you get the "page is blocked" message from StarHub. As the settings are maintained online, StarHub notes that it may take up to 10 minutes to apply any changes.

An unusual feature that will probably go unused: parents can personalise a pop-up video message that appears when a website is blocked.

The filters themselves are far from foolproof.

The positive: they cannot be foiled by enabling the private browsing feature on browsers. They appear to block websites appropriately, though some may slip through the net.

Websites of major beer companies are blocked, but craft beer retailers, which are less prominent, will get through.

However, on numerous occasions, the filter would not work with the Chrome browser. At the same time, it would block websites in Internet Explorer running in another window.

This persisted even after Chrome was restarted. Rebooting the PC did not help. The filtering often plays it safe, blocking tech news websites and even those of PC manufacturers.

StarHub is offering this value-added service for free till the end of the year.

  • Given its limitations, free seems to be the right price.

Alternative Web filters parents can buy

Besides existing solutions from Internet service providers (ISPs), parental-control software, some of which are free, is available in the market.

Some of this software is even built into operating systems such as Windows 8.

The Windows 8 feature called Family Safety has all the basics covered.

It can generate activity reports, set time limits for computer use, restrict games and apps based on age-group recommendations, and filter websites. It is a good starting point for those experimenting with parental controls for the first time.

Many Wi-Fi routers now come with basic parental controls too.

As the router controls Internet access for all devices in the network, it may be more convenient than setting up parental controls on each tablet, laptop or mobile phone in the home.

Generally, these controls are useful for restricting access during certain time periods and blocking specific websites. But do not expect detailed activity reports or alerts.

Norton Family

Free; $29.99 yearly subscription for premier version

Norton Family is free for PC, Mac and Android devices. Simply sign up for a Norton account and download it.

Users can upgrade to the paid premier version with more features, such as the ability to monitor videos, apps and messages.

Reports are now stored for up to 90 days, up from only a week before.

A Web-based interface lets you customise settings, while a mobile app enables remote monitoring.

This app takes a slightly different approach from the others. It lets the child know from the start that he is being monitored and provides a list of house rules.

When a child tries to access a blocked website, there is an option (right) that lets him explain why he wanted to do it.

The child can also write a short note arguing why the website should be allowed. This can lead to healthy discussions on what content is - or is not - suitable.

There is a minor flaw for the Android version - Internet filtering does not work for Chrome browsers when set to incognito mode. Norton said it will send an alert to the parent if it detects a child using incognito mode in a future update, but this is hardly a fix.


Kaspersky Internet Security 2014

$53.90 for a year's subscription, valid for one PC

A general security suite that covers everything from malware to anti-phishing tools, Kaspersky Internet Security 2014 also offers good parental controls.

Its features, like those of its competitors, include restrictions on computer use and blocking of websites with inappropriate content.

The app can block websites if they contain certain keywords specified by the user. This is useful as certain unsuitable websites may have innocuous-sounding URLs.

Controls can be set to curb social-network use and block messages containing sensitive information such as credit-card details and home addresses.

Games and file downloads can be restricted too, making it quite a full-featured package for parents. But a possible improvement is to add a remote management tool such as a mobile app.

This article was first published in The Straits Times Digital Life on June 4, 2014.