Use Google Alerts to monitor your family's on-line exposure

family safetyHow much information is available on-line about you and your family? Everybody knows that there are people out there working hard to discover as much about you as possible, trying to find ways to steal money, or con you, or (worst of all) become you.

But even more than these things, I worry about the amount of exposure my kid's have on-line. The financial danger to adults, as extreme as that is, pales in comparison to the potential for evil there is out there with respect to children.

We attended a seminar hosted by the FBI at my daughter's school last year, and I went into it thinking I had the bases covered:

  • We closely supervise and limit computer use
  • The family computer is in the family room, and we're around when they use it
  • I log instant messaging records, and we discuss them with them
  • I monitor all emails in and out of the kid's accounts
  • I maintain admin rights to the computers, and no programs get installed without my knowledge
  • We discuss the dangers (age appropriate), and make sure they understand the potential for problems

I have to admit I walked out of there floored, because some of the greatest risk may not come from what my kids do online. It comes from what their friends do online.

It doesn't take much. One of your kid's friends happens to post the name of the school they attend on their MySpace account. Then they mention the full names of some of their friends, which includes your child. Another of those friends listed posts their address, and mentions that their friend (your child) only lives 2 houses away. Anyone paying attention now knows your child's name, the city and state you live in, the school he/she attends, and a very close approximation of where you live.

It may sound unlikely, but after you attend a meeting like this you start to understand the lengths to which those wishing to do evil will go in order to achieve their will.

So what do you do? How can you possibly monitor all of that? One thing that can help is a feature Google provides called Google Alerts. What are they? From their FAQ page:

Google Alerts are emails automatically sent to you when there are new Google results for your search terms. You can also choose to have your alerts delivered via feed to the feedreader of your choice (e.g., Google Reader or add the feed to your iGoogle page). We currently offer alerts with results from News, Web, Blogs, Video and Groups.

You will need to create a Google account if you don't already have one. Once you do that you can set up alerts, which are basically standing searches for terms that you specify. Whenever Google indexes a website, blog, video or news group with that term they'll fire off an email to you.

I have alerts set up to monitor:

  • My name
  • My wife's name
  • My childrens names (yes, even my 6 year old)
  • The schools my children attend

I don't at the moment, but have had in the past additional alerts for various teachers, certain friends of my children and a variety of terms that could be relevant to their safety.

Then once a day Google is kind enough to send me anything they've bumped into with any of those terms.

It isn't the end-all for monitoring your family's on-line footprint. It is, however, another tool you can add to your arsenal to help keep them safe, while allowing them the benefits of having exposure to all that is the internet.