Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Smartphone for all: "Parental" controls and managing messaging abuse

It’s hard to get good information on managing smartphone use for a vulnerable person — aka “parental controls”. Especially for Smartphones.

Vendors sites often promise more than they can deliver and provide little information on how they work. Vendors are also understandably reluctant to discuss side-effects and problems. The tech resources I trust tend to dislike the whole idea of parental controls (writers are too young!), and Google search results are dominated by vendor sites, spam blogs, and under-resourced newspaper columns. Parents and “Guides” (supporters of vulnerable users, aka “Explorers”) are truly at sea.

Ok, so “At sea” is a bit polite. Screwed is probably more accurate. The next time your TV tells you that that it’s “easy to monitor your child’s smartphone use” you have my permission to put a brick through the screen.

It’s hard to get reliable information, but I need to cover this topic in my smartphone for all book. So in this post I’m going to share my current impressions — I’d love to get comments here or elsewhere. My impressions are certain to change as a I learn more. For insight on Android solutions I need to credit a review by Brian Hall [1]; just ignore anything he says about iOS and iPhones. For example, he is impressed by the ability of third party Android apps to track location or limit app installation — but those capabilities have long been part of every iPhone. I don’t blame Brian, it’s hard to know both Android and iOS [2] and content farm writing is hard work.

My impressions:

  • Brian’s article focuses on filtering and restricting rather than monitoring. For a vulnerable adult I think monitoring is just as important — but it’s harder to do.
  • iOS (iPhone) has far better built-in restriction options than Android, but it needs better texting/messaging controls and it needs time limits [3]. If you want to restrict or eliminate Text Messaging on a stock iPhone you need to both disable iMessage [4] and have a mobile carrier that allows restriction or monitoring of SMS texting (typically for a non-trivial monthly fee).  A parent or Guide may consider something like Facebook Messenger ( [5]. Messenger’s web client makes it easier to monitor than SMS or iMessage — assuming one has control of an Explorer’s credentials. It can be used separately from Facebook.
  • It’s easier to extend Android than iOS, so Android plus a separate app and service has some advantages over iOS. This may be particularly true for texting controls. I don’t know how these impact device reliability or usability, I read that some of them are difficult to install. From Hall’s review I’d say Norton Family Premier is the only solution worth looking at, but it has weak texting/messaging controls
  • This party solutions for iOS leverage the tools Apple built for corporate iPhones. These tools are limited but they are well tested. The main strength is web filtering and monitoring, but that’s less useful in the Facebook age when, for many “Explorers”, browsers can be disabled with little impact. (Disabling the browser is easy to do on iOS, but requires a third party product on Android.)
  • Social networks (Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, etc) can only be monitored by using a user’s credentials; that is, by assuming their identity. This probably violates the Terms of Service of these businesses and it’s too complex for many Guides or Parents to take on. I do discuss it in my book though.
My primary surprise is how hard it is to support safe use of old school SMS/Messaging. It seems to have never occurred to Apple that this would be a good option to provide, and, of course, Android defers all of those concerns to third party developers.
- fn -

[1] Published on a content-farm site with a name suspiciously reminiscent of Tom’s Hardware, a famous geek resource. Such is the state of the 2016 web. Once BYTE would have done a fabulous review, but it died long ago. I think we pay a price for that kind of absence.

[2] So have sympathy for me!

[3] Time limits are usually more important for children than for independent adults with cognitive disabilities. Lack of texting/messaging controls are annoying though.

[4] Log out of iMessage in Settings, then lock accounts in restrictions.

[5] Yes, Facebook, famed invader of privacy and exploiter of customers is now the “safer” option. For now!

No comments: