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Protect your home office - from your kids

There's nothing worse than setting up your home office, only to have the kids destroy the lot with an errant game install, virus infection or jam covered keyboard.

Much has been written - and rightfully so - about the dangers children can encounter on the Internet and how to protect their privacy and safety. But what about kids as culprits?

If you've ever watched a 10 year old at a PC, you'll know they rampage through files, documents and web sites with reckless abandon, never reading any type of warning or text tip when poking three random buttons on the keyboard will do. Yes, a little knowledge is dangerous and today's kiddies - from tots to teenagers - are so computer literate that they often think they know what they're doing, when in fact, they often don't.

So before you hear "Mum, Dad - the computer's crashed," let's take a look at some ways you can protect your home office and computer from the (unwitting) enemy within.
Physical security for the under 5s
Physical security for the under 5s
Drawbridges and metal gates may be impractical, but there are ways to make your PC toddler-proof.
Primary school predators
Primary school predators
You don't have to lock the PC away any more -- but it's best to make it as safe as possible, for you and your kids.
Teenage terminators
Teenage terminators
Sure, they might know everything -- but you have to know more. It's not as hard as it sounds, however.
Practice good housekeeping
Practice good housekeeping
Keep your home office PC in tip-top shape with these handy hints.

Physical security for the under 5s
Unless you have a small technology protégé on your hands, the biggest risk from the under 5s comes from the physical damage to your equipment they can cause. Buttons with LED lights are irresistible to tiny index fingers and small objects of all shapes and sizes will be jammed into any open port, CD or disk slot within striking distance.

If you work from home and your livelihood depends on it, lock the young'uns out. It may be an extreme or impractical measure, but an off-limits room is the only way to guarantee the total security of your equipment and data from your children.

But if you must allow the littlies in the room occasionally, there are a few precautions you can take.

For starters, try sitting on an exercise ball (also known as swiss ball or fitball) instead of a regular office chair. Not only will you have better posture and a happier spine, small climbers will find it harder to reach the tower on your desk. (Note that Workcover does not recommend their prolonged use - primarily because "using the fitness ball as standard seating would constitute a daily regime of constant exercising". Apparently that's bad.)

Boring topic, but if you haven't bothered to find cable ties or some other type of cable management system to tidy up all those errant cords, now is the time. The brute strength of a two year old with a firm grip on a length of cable is amazing.

Biometric mouse

Another wise investment worth considering is a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) or battery backup. The slightest drop in power can cause your computer to freeze or shut off, so if your child accidentally knocks out your power, the UPS will switch to battery backup and continue to provide power until the PC can be safely shut down without loss of data.

Adding food and drink to the combo of children and home office is asking for trouble. But if you're a realist and know that it can't always be avoided, there are ways to protect your accessories. Many keyboards nowadays claim what is called 'spill proof construction' and even 'liquid drainage construction'. Truly heavy duty ones have been designed for industrial environments and will cost upwards of AU$300 - AU$400. A more economic solution may be a spill proof keyboard cover, which can be found in the AU$25 - AU$40 range.

Also on the keyboard and mouse front, you may want to consider those with biometric security built in. It's a hard core way to restrict access as only your own fingerprint can open a session on your PC. For local products try XELIOS PC Login Biometric Edition or the Precise BioKeyboard.

Barbie laptop

Every parent knows that their MiniMe just wants to copy what they see Mum and Dad doing, so a savvy (and educational) option for the older preschooler is to get them their own notebook -- a Barbie or Hot Wheels one, of course. Made by Oregon Scientific (RRP AU$149), they look just like an adult's laptop and come loaded with 50 learning activities such as vocabulary, logic, maths, spelling, grammar, music, memory and keyboarding games.

Primary school predators

Barbie and Hot Wheels fake notebooks just won't cut it anymore once they start making their way through the primary grades. Internet research, typed reports with full colour graphics and photos, PowerPoint presentations and Instant Messaging with school friends quickly becomes part of the daily routine.

Separate computers with a network to share things like Internet access and printers is the safest route and certainly the way most homes are heading. But if you're like many families and the home computer still must be shared between banking duties, web browsing, email, photo printing, home work and games, then you must find a way to meet everyone's needs.

Instead of isolating the family PC as when the children were younger, you may now want to move it to a more open and accessible spot - near the kitchen or lounge room, say - so that an adult can casually keep an eye on what and where the kids are browsing. Even so, know that kids are quick to learn the Alt Tab trick - quickly changing or minimising the screen on the computer when you walk by - a sure sign that something your child does not want you to see is hiding in the task bar.

The next biggest step, if you haven't already done it, is to establish individual 'profiles' for each users on your computer. This enables your children to log-in under their own name and only access programs and documents relevant to them (games and folders) and not the rest.

If you have not yet done so, you may have to upgrade your operating systems to Windows XP. The XP Home version, in particular, easily allows you to set up a shared PC for multiple users. You retain administrator control over the whole machine, but you can set the kids up as limited users. They will have limited access, but most importantly, they will be unable to change system settings or install any new hardware or software, including most video games, media players and chat programs.

Each user can and should set up a password for their account. It's an obvious measure for the administrator, but it will also be an opportunity to teach your children important lessons about security and hopefully a security consciousness will become second nature to them. Teach them not to use their name or any easy-to-guess passwords.

Those of you on Windows XP Professional have the option of using its Encrypting File System to digitally scramble your data, so that even if the kids do gain access to your work, it will be unreadable. If that's too arduous, software such as QwikSecure 2.0 lets you hide your folders as any one of five possible disguises. For instance, if you hide your folder as the 'Recycle Bin,' any unauthorised user will be directed to your recycle bin instead of your protected folder or directory. Only you may unprotect the folders you have hidden.

You should use both antivirus software and a personal firewall to guard your PC. An antivirus program helps to protect the PC from known viruses and worms, while a personal firewall protects the PC from new, unknown viruses and worms as well as from intrusions by hackers and identity theft culprits.

But antivirus software will only help protect you from viruses if you update it regularly, as it works by comparing your machine against known viruses. When you update your software, you download information about all the latest viruses. Many antivirus packages offer an auto-update facility, so it can be set to automatically log into the software vendor's website to check the for the latest information or known 'virus definitions.'

Packages such as Trend Micro's PC-cillin Internet Security 2004 combine virus protection, a personal firewall, privacy and spyware protection, as well as spam and URL filtering features.

A personal firewall -- software or hardware -- will protect not only the machine itself, but it will also make it harder for the machine to attack others. Just be aware of a firewall's possible unintended consequences - an online game might refuse to run because a critical port is being blocked by the firewall, for example.

With children online, it is worthwhile to purchase a content filter to protect them from coming across unsuitable adult content. The Australian Internet Saftety Advisory Body, NetAlert, provides a good list of recommended content filters. It's worth noting that Internet filtering software isn't perfect, and of course, that one person's innapropriate content is another's happy day out. As such, the best prevention is to keep an eye on your children's activities as much as this is actually possible.

Remember that software updates are probably one of the most under-utilised options in the home. They are usually free and just take a little time to download and install. The effort to install security updates could well save you from a virus attack and much unnecessary trauma.

Teenage terminators

It's time to face facts. By the time your children are teenagers, they probably do know more than you about computing. But nevertheless, you will still need to keep ahead of the game in a few key areas.

The types of programs that teenagers are likely to run include P2P software, online games, Instant Messaging clients, email programs and web browsers. Your PC will also be at risk from infected files on CDs shared by their well-meaning friends.

We've covered most vulnerabilities elsewhere, but the newest, perhaps most unfamiliar challenge parents will face will be their teenager's interest in downloading Peer-to-Peer software.

Peer-to-Peer (P2P) systems make it possible for people to exchange files without necessarily having to go through a web site or other centralised system. Napster, the most famous of these services, was used by millions to exchange music files until it was shut down by a US court after the music industry sued them over alleged copyright violations. Napster has now re-emerged as a legal music downloading service, operating with the consent of the recording industry.

There are plenty of other P2P systems including some that allow you to exchange other types of files including video, photographs, text documents and software. Aside from the legal and ethical issues regarding the unauthorised sharing of copyrighted material, there are some very serious safety issues regarding these services.

To begin with, some of the files you can download -- including photographs and videos -- might contain disturbing and inappropriate material. It's also possible that these services could invade your privacy and slow down your Internet access.

The whole concept behind P2P file-sharing systems is that users who download files are encouraged to upload them as well. Many of these services, by default, will turn your PC into a server that shares your files. In addition to legal jeopardy, it could also make it possible for others to gain access to information on your computer including personal photographs, videos, sound files and other documents.

Many P2P applications are sneaky, and don't actually close properly when you click on the red X on the top right hand side of the application -- that just makes them minimise down to the system tray where they continue to serve out and download files. To be safe, always use the P2P application's file menu and make sure you choose the 'Close' or 'Exit' option. To make matters worse, simply running P2P applications can cause problems for other computers if you're on a business, home, or school network.

Another problem with file-sharing services is that the software used to access them can sometimes come with some unwelcome extra 'features' such as 'spyware' programs that can invade your privacy and display unwelcome advertising.

If you do use a file-sharing service, be very careful about what 'permissions' you give it when you set it up. Avoid sharing your own files and decline any offers to install extra software.

Check out the Kazaa Parent's Guide for more about file sharing software. The Kazaa file sharing application comes with virus software, Bullguard P2P, which means if parents (or kids) tick the default settings when installing the software, the virus definition software will automatically update and scan incoming data for viruses.

Practice good housekeeping
It's important whether you have kids or not to conduct regular security checks. Vulnerability patches and bug fixes are released frequently, but aren't always publicised. Check for updates at all your software vendors' Web sites, or better still, use the 'auto update' function. Another good tip is to uninstall any software that is no longer in use. This will free up some disk space and eliminate potential trouble spots.

If you do encounter trouble -- remember F1! Help functions have become increasingly more, well, helpful. Windows XP also incorporates System Restore, which enables you to step back from a system crash or a bad experience with software and restore your PC to a previous operational state without losing data.

While you're updating your security, remember to back up your data and save the backup information to a disk or an external drive for safekeeping. If there's a catastrophic failure such as a hard drive crash, this backup can be used to restore the data after the hardware repair is complete.

A final word of caution -- make sure you have adequate insurance coverage. Don't just assume that your Home & Contents policy will cover all your home office equipment -- it may not. (This is particularly true for mobile things your kids like to get their hands on like notebook computers, PDAs and mobile phones.)

If your existing coverage leaves you short, there are specialist insurers that can help. One such outfit, IT Insurance, offers both comprehensive and accidental damage policies for notebook and desktop computers, data projectors, PDA's and mobile phones.