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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NetSnitch Offers Parents Way To Supervise Children's Surfing

BOSTON -- To a teenager, watchful parents can seem an awful lot like Big Brother.

Now the analogy is just a little more apt, at least on the Internet, because of new software that lets parents trail their children through cyberspace.

The software, called NetSnitch, is being pitched as a tool for parents who don't want to censor their kids. Unlike other Internet minders, which block children from visiting sites deemed too racy or violent, NetSnitch just records where they've been and how long they've been there.

"Sounds to me like Orwellian parenting," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "You might as well drop a video camera in your kid's bedroom."

That's not what parents Stanley Wallerstein and Jacinta Cullen had in mind two years ago when they came up with the idea for NetSnitch after bringing home a computer for their two sons, then 11 and 7.

Although they wanted some control over their children's online wanderings, they didn't like any of the commercial products then available for parents.

Those programs -- Cyber Patrol and NetNanny among them -- have been criticized as heavy-handed and unreliable. They must be updated constantly, and can block inoffensive sites by mistake. And the software developer, not the parent, decides which sites are objectionable.

"We were concerned, like most parents, about what was on the Internet," Wallerstein said. "But we weren't comfortable with the idea of someone else censoring what our family could see."

So Wallerstein and Cullen got a friend to adapt technology used to monitor employees in the workplace, then set up shop at a web site and a small office.

With NetSnitch, parents call up a screen display that shows each site visited by a previous user during an Internet session, and how much time was spent at each site. A click of the mouse takes the parent directly to any of the sites.

Programs like NetSnitch have more to do with parenting philosophies than software development, said Don DePalma, a senior analyst with Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge.

"From a technology perspective it's not rocket science. From a parenting perspective, it all comes down to trust -- trust vs. prevention," he said. "This is a really tough call. Do you want to tell your kid you don't trust them?"

NetSnitch manager Bob Reardon says he wants parents to tell their children the program is in place, not try to catch them unawares. "It's not like we're trying to sneak up on these kids. It's to remind them that they shouldn't be there and that there might be consequences," he said.