Thwarting cyber-bullies and predators on Facebook

ZoneAlarm Social Guard is designed to keep Facebook creeps and other threats away from your kids. It's a good start, but it has a long way to go.

If you’ve got kids that are teens or tweens (like I do), you know two things for certain: One is that they have a Facebook account. The other is that they’ll do whatever it takes to keep their parents away from it.

Sure, they might friend you. Or they might do as my 14-year-old son did and create a fake Facebook account to fool his parents, while keeping another one for his actual friends. Or as my younger daughter does, and save the juicy conversations for places her parents can’t see, like messages or chat.

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This week CheckPoint Technologies introduced a new software service called ZoneAlarm Social Guard designed to help monitor your kids’ Facebook accounts. Social Guard’s main purpose is to head off cyber-bullying and come-ons from potential predators by alerting you to them in real time, or close to it. 

For $2 a month or $20 a year, Social Guard will let you know if strangers suddenly want to befriend your child on Facebook, or if anyone leaves taunting messages on their wall, in comments, or in messages. It will flag suspicious links that could lead to malware and warn you if their account has been hacked or the password changed. It can even alert you if people over a certain age are friending your kids or if your children are sharing information online they shouldn’t, like their home address.

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You start by entering your child’s Facebook logon and password into Social Guard, which then installs a Facebook app on their account. In other words, you probably won’t be able to do this on the sly -- you’ll need to know your kids’ log on info, and they’ll be able to see you’ve installed a new app on their page. The idea is to start a dialog with your kids, not to play Big Brother.

(Rule #3 of tweens and teens: They’d rather eat broken glass than start a dialog with you about anything. But I digress.)

Sounds good, right? That’s the theory anyway. In practice, though, Social Guard is very much a 1.0 product, filled with glitches and some pretty big holes. I tried it out with both my personal account and some dummy accounts I created for this purpose.

My findings?

* Social Guard won’t monitor chat conversations, though Checkpoint Head of Consumer Marketing John Gable says that’s coming in a future version.

* It won’t monitor racy photos your kids upload, or spammy apps they install. That’s because Social Guard is more focused on your child’s security than his privacy, Gable explains.

* It produced a lot of false positives, while missing some obvious red flags. For example, it flagged posts from Facebook friends simply because their names were Dick and Fanny. (Yes, really.) It labeled many of my oldest friends as “strangers” because we had few Facebook friends in common, while ignoring people who really are strangers to me but have professional connections to other friends. It flagged almost every link as ‘malicious,’ though most of them were not. Gable says Social Guard is trying to err on the side of warning too much, rather than too little.

* More disturbingly, Social Guard missed some obvious attempts at cyber-bullying. It flagged wall comments that contained keywords like “nazi” or “faggot” or “kill,” but missed some equally nasty threats that lacked such language (like “I’m going to catch you after school and beat you up”).

On the other hand, Social Guard did detect that one of my friends was lying about his age (he claimed to be 16 but is clearly in his 40s) based on the job information in his profile. And it did warn me about the ominous creep profile I’d created in order to stalk my more innocent test profile. It also flagged links to sites for porn, guns, bombs, alcohol, and cigarettes placed by said ominous creep.

Overall I’d give Social Guard a B-. A good start – and a lot better than trying to monitor Facebook manually – but far from a complete solution.

There are a few other caveats here. Smart predators will go to great lengths to disguise their profiles; Checkpoint says it has built in algorithms designed to ferret them out, but that’s still to be proved. And, of course, the thing really won’t work without your kids’ cooperation.

The good news is that Social Guard may be a good way to initiate “the Facebook conversation” – which, like the Sex Talk, has become a parental requirement. That is, assuming your kids are still talking to you.

When his kids aren’t talking to him, TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan tends his geek humor blog, eSarcasm. Follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech.

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