Technology brings un-invited guests

Almost every new computer has a built-in webcam these days — whether you want it or not; even if you don’t really know how to use it.

Need a new cell phone? Expect it to have a webcam on board in the overwhelming majority of cases.

I special-ordered my last Dell laptop from a choice of only one or two models that could be selected without a webcam.

I understand that a webcam is an essential component for video conferencing and a useful add-on if you subscribe to a free voice-over-IP service; but, how many parents realize that this soon to be ubiquitous technology presents a number of challenges to protecting their children’s privacy?

As far as the home computer, if a webcam is not already installed in the monitor, your high school daughter will probably be happy to inform you that “everyone else has one” and that they only cost $20 or $30.

I see three main issues —

First, when you add a webcam that’s capable of taking still photos, or video, into the mix of methods that strangers can already use to communicate with your children, you quickly edge from the purely icky into the probably illegal. Plainly put, be sure your webcam hasn’t put your child in communication with a child predator.

Next, less than two months ago, I read about a well-heeled Philadelphia suburban school district that was accused of spying on high school students and their families through webcams that were installed in school-issued laptops that were covertly activated by school administrators. A concern has always been that hackers may be able to install software on your Internet-connected computer device that allows access and control of the webcam remotely.

Last, using a service VOIP service, like Skype, may expose you to contact requests from spammers.

Between the threat of child predators, spying hackers, and annoying spam, you have to ask yourself, “Are webcams ever worth it?”

Sometimes they absolutely are.

Many daycares use them so that parents can keep an eye on their kids during the day. Some parents have taken this concept into their homes and installed webcams so that they can check on kids while they’re away.

Webcams are definitely useful in a work setting when they provide an offsite monitoring option to a surveilance system or, a richer, more interactive remote conferencing experience.

If the benefits outweigh the risks for you, here are some tips for safer Webcam use:

1. Shut off the camera and cover it with a lens cap when you aren’t using it.

2. Keep the camera in an open space, like a living room, rather than allowing your kids to use it in private.

3. Don’t let your child use the camera to communicate with anyone who isn’t a peer or who they don’t know personally.

4. Remind your child not to respond to IMs, emails, or contact requests from people they don’t know.

5. Keep any information that you consider private away from the camera. Don’t position it so that your house number is in the frame, for example.

For me, a small piece of tape is sufficient to foil any un-invited guest into my newest laptop — which is only available with the built in webcam.

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