RealTime IT News

Symantec Readies Flexible Family Safety Software

Symantec will introduce the latest experiment from its Advanced Concepts "lab" at the DEMO conference this week—a new type of Internet security and monitoring software for families.

The Advanced Concepts group is an attempt by the company, with 17,000 employees, to regain a sense of the nimble development process found at smaller, entrepreneurial firms. When a company gets as big as Symantec, the process of creating a product can take a long time and a lot of people. The AC group wants to streamline that.

"We've become a big company. In doing so, when we do things, we do things in scale, and some times that takes a lot of process," said Gerry Egan, director of product management for Symantec Research labs.

The objective of the new group is to try out the new ideas and make sure they've got something marketable before handing it over to a business unit for the full go to market business decision.

The group has done two previous products, one currently out called Symantec Database Security, and a Web-browsing product that lets you look at the content of a site before actually visiting to determine if there might be any dangerous content. This product is planned for the next release of Internet Security Suite later this year.

This third product, known as the Symantec Family Safety Initiative, took nine months from concept to fruition. Under normal Symantec development cycles, it would have taken twice as long, said Egan.

There have been numerous child protection software products on the market, like CyberPatrol and NetNanny, but Egan said they had three fundamental problems: they focused solely on the parent when Symantec felt it should include the whole family; the software made all the decisions, which gave parents no leeway; and the stuff was akin to spyware on the children.

"It sends the wrong message of a lack of trust," Egan told InternetNews.com. "If kids learn they are being spied on by their parents, they shift their behavior out of the house. What we believe we've built is a framework for education and a softer type of enforcement. Parents can be stricter for younger children, but as the kid grows you have to let them have a freer reign."

It can be used to really restrict children's access or let the kids surf almost anywhere they please. Parents can set hard or loose time usage limits; either the computer shuts them down after two hours of "World of Warcraft" or it simply reminds them that their time is up and it's time to get off the computer.

It also monitors all social networking sites, like MySpace and Facebook as well as instant messaging. Congress recently passed a law for stricter reporting of such behavior, and this will help parents document it.

Parents get a report showing all the friends in the IM friends list and how much time was spent chatting, so if the kid spends many hours in the week chatting with one person, parents can find out whether that person is a known friend or someone mysterious. Most of the cases of teens running off with someone they met in chat rooms were preceded with many hours spent in chat, so parents can get a hint in advance.

Egan thinks this method avoids straying into the spyware realm. "We're tip-toeing up to that line but I don't think we're crossing it. Yeah, the kid might not agree," he admitted.

At no point does the kid not know this is happening. There's an icon at the bottom of the screen where the kid can see it's running and they can click on the icon to read the rules, so they know what features are on, said Egan.

Symantec plans to show off the technology at the DEMO show to get the first round of feedback (undoubtedly from the parents' perspective). It will launch a private internal beta in March and hopefully have a go to market plan by summer, if all goes well.