Recently I went through a great deal of frustration to install filtering software at the small church school that my
kids attend. Yesterday I encountered an issue so unexpected that, rather than
get frustrated, all I could do was to sit back and laugh. During dinner, my
daughter Jenny presented me with a very strange complaint: CyberPatrol was blocking
her from doing her English assignment, using Microsoft Word no less, on the school
computer. She was trying to use the words "is hitting" in a sentence,
and every time she tried to type those words her letters were converted to dots.
What she told me sounded so bizarre that at first I accused her of inadvertently
switching to one of those dingbat-style fonts. But no, she insisted she was
using the default Times New Roman font. She further insisted it was not just
her computer, nor just her document, but that other kids had similar problems
on other computers and in other documents. This was just too good to pass up,
so later we hopped into the car and drove up to the school. I must confess,
I had no faith in my daughter. I fully expected to sit down at the computer,
open up Word, type in "is hitting", and have everything work as expected.
I was wrong.
I got as far as "Is hi", which you can see in Figure 1.
Figure 1. I begin to type “Is hitting”
So far so good. But look at Figure 2 to see what happened as soon as I pressed
the "t" key.
Figure 2. I got as far as the first “t”
This was no good! I have to filter web sites, but I’m under no requirement
to censor what the kids type at the keyboard. I want the kids to be able to
use the computers, not get frustrated by them. After a few minutes
of hunting around, I discovered that CyberPatrol has a feature called ChatGuard
that monitors keystrokes in an attempt to prevent kids from typing profanities
into chat rooms. The feature was on by default, and it had triggered in response
to the "s hit" string of letters in "is hitting". No matter
that there was a space between the two words.
Jenny and I had a good laugh about our discovery, I turned off the ChatGuard
feature on all the computers, and everything is now fine. As I write this however,
I just have to think: "how silly". I don’t know whether to fault CyberPatrol,
but probably I shouldn’t because they may just be implementing a feature their
customers demand. But what are their customers thinking? Does anyone really
believe a feature like ChatGuard will work? That kids won’t find alternative
ways to swear at their friends? It only took me five seconds to come up with
an alternative spelling for the word in question: use all uppercase letters
and substitute the digit "1" for the letter "I". Now I begin
to understand why so many bizarre spellings and abbreviations are used in chatroorms.
Some of them are probably created to avoid the filters.
Funny as I thought the situation was, some thoughts about it trouble me. The
filter encouraged the very behavior it was intended to prevent! The first thing
Jenny did when she had problems was, of course, to tell all her friends. Once
they realized what was going on, that the filter was censoring their keystrokes,
the kids (or at least Jenny) ran down the full list of profanities in order
to test them. Jenny told me during the drive to school just which swear words
she could type in and which she could not. The "is hitting" incident
focused the kids’ full attention on profanity.
Another, more troubling issue, is that of unintended consequences. Clearly,
ChatGuard’s target was the so-called S-word. The unintended effect however,
was to ban any sequence of the letters "S", "H", "I",
and "T". Jenny and I did some testing of this, and it didn’t matter
whether there were spaces between the letters (as in separate words), periods
between the letters, or even carriage-returns between the letters. In every
case, when we typed the forbidden sequence without any intervening letters,
the sequence was deleted and replaced by periods.
Many times mechanisms, whether laws, rules, or filtering software, are put
in place to prevent bad behavior, and many times such mechanisms have unintended
side-effects such as Jenny & friends encountered. My experience has been
that even when a law or rule is shown to have flaws, that it’s next to impossible
to get authorities to correct those flaws. I have no doubt that many school
administrators would have simply told my daughter to reword her sentence to
avoid the forbidden sequence of letters. Worse yet, some might have actually
faulted her for trying to use "is hitting" in the first place.
Rather than fix flawed enforcement mechanisms, sometimes authorities even "protect"
them by banning what would otherwise be perfectly acceptable.
What do we do to kids when we attempt to censor them to such a degree that
we monitor their every keystroke? Will my kids grow up with the proper respect
for authority, or will they become cynical as a result of authorities’ misguided
attempts to monitor their every word? How can you learn decorum when you’re
spending much of your time trying to get around the controls put in place to
force it? By intrusive monitoring and misguided attempts to force good behavior
on our kids, do we force them into the position of using their creative genious
to work around the barriers that we set up? And if they work around us, how
can they respect us? Will we end up engendering the very behavior we set out