Staying Spotless in a Sea of Slime – Part 5
by Clark L. and Kathryn H. Kidd
Question: Which is the best user name for the actor in Star Trek– BillShatner, William S or BeamMeUp? The answer is in this article-and we’ll tell you why it matters.
In previous columns, we’ve been pretty graphic about the evils that are lurking on the Internet. But most people who spend time online have a positive experience when they do so. There are some general safety guidelines that should keep you safe on the net, if they are rigorously followed. This column will give some suggestions that will enhance your online safety in three areas. Later we’ll focus on other ideas. Just remember that the rules must always be kept. It only takes one visit to a chatroom to undo all the good that you’ve done by following the other protective measures.
Selecting your User Name. Because most of you will connect to the Internet through some type of dial-up connection, it will be necessary for you to identify yourself, not only with some kind of user name, but also with a password. If your service provider allows you to choose your own user name, choose one that will reveal little about yourself to others. In particular, avoid user names that reveal details about your age or your gender. Choosing names such as “HotBody,” “TinyAngel,” or “CuteBabe” is just asking for trouble. Women and girls are more subject than males to online harassment, so they should take particular care in selecting their user names.
You should also avoid user names that reveal your true identity, particularly your last name. Having your last name makes it easy for predators to find you using one of the people searching services that are readily available. For example “BillShatner” would be a bad choice, “WilliamS” would be better, and “BeamMeUp” would be the best of all.
Parents should also make sure that all user names selected by their children will meet these guidelines. User names such as “TopDog” and “WittyOne” may not be as impressive as the child’s own name, but they will cause fewer problems. Surely Mom and Dad and Junior can reach a compromise that will be acceptable to all.
Selecting your Password. Your password is a critical item of information, because it is the sentinel that keeps others from accessing the Internet through your account. Anyone who knows your password can connect using your user name, causing all kinds of problems for you. It is hard to emphasize too much that family members need to keep passwords a secret from everyone with the possible exception of you, the parent. And it’s a good idea that husbands and wives also know one another’s password, as an extra incentive to avoid temptation.
Assume your child sends an e-mail to a friend who is a little bit mischievous, if not downright dishonest. >From the e-mail, the friend can determine the user name of your child, and the name of the online service that he uses. There is a pretty good chance that the friend has access to the same online service, or can find a computer where the software for that service has been installed. Now the password is the only piece of the puzzle that prevents the friend from connecting as your child. If your child has revealed his password, or selected one that is easy to guess, the bad guy is in.
Although this may appear far-fetched, it really is not. There are groups of very serious pranksters and criminals who spend a lot of time trying to guess passwords so they can get online using a stranger’s account. There are also “password cracking” programs that are written just to try and guess passwords. Once outsiders gain access, you can be sure they’ll cause trouble. After all, if their purposes were honest, they wouldn’t need to steal someone else’s identity.
When choosing a password, following these guidelines will make it difficult for your password to be guessed by a person or a password-cracking program:
.Use at least six characters.
.If your online service recognizes both upper-case and lower-case characters, use a mixture of each in the password.
.Use a mixture of letters, numbers, and other symbols that are allowed.
.Do not use any word found in any dictionary, and do not add a number to the front or back of a dictionary word. Password cracking programs try such combinations.
.Make sure your password has no relationship with your user name. Avoid the obvious trick of spelling the user name backwards.
.Do not use any item that makes up part of your personal identification, such as your phone number, address, Social Security number, any of your names or the names of family members – including the trusty family pet. Avoid backwards spellings of any of these items as well.
If children have trouble remembering complex passwords, consider using some
type of memory device that will remind them. For example, the nursery rhyme “Sing A Song of Six Pence…” could be used to remember the password “SASO6P.
Try to avoid writing down your password. If you must write it down, store it away from the computer, such as in a drawer, or in a book. Writing the password on a sticky note and placing it on the computer monitor is a bad idea.
Some services, such as America Online, allow you to store a password on your computer so that you don’t have to enter it when connecting to the service. This only works on your own computer, so a neighbor could not connect using your user name from his computer unless he had the password. You may want to consider this option for your children for a couple of reasons:
.If you establish the password for your children, they will never need to remember a password to get connected. They just need to select their user name from the list of family names and hit the Enter key to connect.
.Because they don’t know their own password, your children will not be able to connect to the service from another location, such as a friend’s home.
Of course, there are some disadvantages to using stored passwords. Because no password is needed to sign on, anyone with access to the computer can connect using that user name. Family members could connect with the wrong user name, or even outsiders visiting your home could connect. This could be a problem if you have different names defined with different levels of access authority. (For example, eight-year-old Horace, who has been firmly restricted to eight-year-old subjects, might get a real education if he signed on using Dad’s user name.) But there’s nothing to stop you from using stored passwords on some user names but not others. For example, the kids can connect without passwords, but Mom and Dad still need to enter theirs.
Under no conditions should the master user name (the first one that was specified when the account was opened) be allowed access without a password, because that is the user name that controls the access levels for everyone else.
Online Profiles. Commercial services such as America Online often allow you to build an online profile that can be displayed by others who want to learn more about you. Although the profile looks quite innocent on the surface, there is a great potential for mishap. If someone gets annoyed with a message you write or something you do online, he can easily display your profile and find out about you. Or if your online communication reveals you as someone who is ripe for being stalked, the online profile could lead the predator right to your door. Using some of the people-searching services that are readily available, people can locate your address and home phone number from just a few clues.
If you must use an online profile, follow the rules about privacy that have already been discussed. Profiles will usually allow you to leave items blank, so you need not reveal anything about yourself that you don’t want known. Services that support profiles also usually allow you to search for profiles that match certain characteristics. For example, if you assemble plastic hobby kits, you could search for others who live in your state, and who share the same passion. Although this seems like a convenient feature to you, the user, such features are also convenient for sex criminals and scam artists who are searching for local prey.
One final reason for avoiding online profiles is that they expose your e-mail address to the world. There are people who compile lists of e-mail addresses and sell those lists to those who send junk e-mail. Once they get your user name from an online profile, they can also determine your e-mail address. The predator doesn’t have to know your name; all he has to do is to search for all online profiles that contain, say, the word “the.” More specifically, someone starting an online dating service may want to have a more exclusive mailing list, and may search for any profile with a marital status of “single” or “divorced.” In any case, building an online profile is like throwing open the doors to the world and saying, “Please send me some junk e-mail!” As we explore in future columns, junk e-mail is something you definitely want to avoid.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.