When I was a kid, I learned a bunch of computer tips from other kids which I used to hide things from my parents.
Although this article talks about ways to avoid parental surveillance, it’s really written for parents. We want you to know how your kids might use the computer in ways you don’t approve of. Accordingly, each section ends with tips for parents on how to prevent abuses.
Computer Tips #1—Browser Privacy Mode
Most modern Web browsers now ship with a privacy mode which changes how the browser stores data.
One key feature of privacy mode is that the browser doesn’t store any history data. As soon as you close the browser, it deletes any browsing history from that session, so parents can’t see where on the Web their kids have been.
Privacy mode also doesn’t store permanent cookies or other information, so parents can’t automatically log into their children’s Facebook accounts just by visiting Facebook.com.
Computer Tips for Parents: high-end routers with built-in parental controls can help monitor what sites your kids visit even if they use privacy mode.
Computer Tips #2—Free Proxy
Parental control software works by blocking the Web addresses that match a particular pattern. For example, if your parents don’t want you visiting Facebook, they block all addresses including Facebook.com.
A free proxy site gets around that restriction. The proxy at, say, example.com downloads the page from Facebook and displays it to you on example.com.
Warning: proxies can be dangerous. To log in to Facebook through example.com, you must give your Facebook password to example.com.
Computer tips for parents: blocking free proxies can be easy. Check your parental control logs for what sites your kids visit. Make sure you know what each site does—if one of them is a proxy, block it. If your kid keeps trying different proxies, activate the white list feature of your parental control software which will block all sites on the Internet except those you give permission to access.
Computer Tips #3—Password Unprotected
Passwords are the most used type of computer security, but even strong passwords provide weak security if you have access to the hardware.
Say your father has administrative access to your computer and won’t let you install some software. You can download certain live CDs based on Linux which will let you discover or change his password.
Computer tips for parents: don’t use the same password on your computer that you use for online accounts. Also, go into your BIOS settings and disable booting from CD and set a BIOS password.
Even if your parent sets a BIOS password as described above, you can reset most BIOS passwords by simply removing the battery from your computer’s motherboard.
Warning: Linux live CDs can erase your disk drive and removing your motherboard battery can destroy your entire computer.
Computer tips for parents: check to make sure your BIOS password is still there every once in a while. Removing the motherboard battery will reset the password, so you’ll know it has been changed.
Computer Tips #4—The Secret Desktop
Your Mom might teach you about Alt-tab, which is a quick way to change applications—and to clear your screen of an unapproved website—but your Mom probably won’t tell you that there are applications that do a better job of hiding open applications.
With one of these apps, the current window disappears not only from the screen but also from the taskbar. To get it back, you need to press a particular key combination—a combination your Mom probably doesn’t know.
Computer tips for parents: check the list of installed applications occasionally and make sure you know what each program does.
Computer Tips #5—Encrypt Files
If you absolutely don’t want someone else to see a particular file—like your diary—the only way to truly keep it secure is encryption. The top editions of Windows come with encryption, but you can also install a third-party program that does just as good a job.
To encrypt a file, you need to enter a password. There are also key-based encryption methods and methods that use both a key and a password—but those methods are complicated to use.
The advantage of a password is that nobody without the password can access the file unless they have access to several years of supercomputer processing time.
Computer tips for parents: if your kids start using encrypted files, you can ask them to decrypt them. If that doesn’t work, you can use a key logger which will save any passwords typed on your computer.
Computer Tips #6—Two Browsers
Browser privacy mode, described previously, has one big problem: you can’t save bookmarks or other information you don’t want your parents to see. This problem can be easily solved if you have a USB drive and a “portable” browser.
A portable browser is a special browser designed to run from a USB drive and to store all of its information there too. There are portable versions of several major browsers.
As long as your parents don’t get ahold of your USB drive, any information on it is secure.
Computer tips for parents: some modern computer BIOSes let you restrict what USB devices can be used. Some software does the same thing less effectively. A trick used at some corporations is just to epoxy over the USB ports, but this is obviously a permanent solution. (Although it may make an effective threat.)
Computer Tips #7—Anti-Anti-Virus
Gamers who need a speed up the computer can turn off their computer anti-virus. This is somewhat similar to feeding your vegetables to the family dog—Mom won’t teach you this trick, but it’s not usually terribly harmful in the short term.
Of course, the problems start when you forget to turn the anti-virus back on after you finish gaming. The next thing you or someone else on your computer downloads could install a virus on your computer which will upset the whole family and even cost your parents money.
Computer tips for everybody: be sure anti-virus is running (check the task bar) before you start browsing or reading your email.