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Protecting human assets (Pt. 2): Be wary of computers marketed to seniors

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Part 2 of a 2 Part Series

It’s hard enough for the average user to stay safe online.

For those who don’t fall into the tech-savvy demographic, it can become nightmarish.

In this column, Part 2 of our series on protecting human assets in a technological world, we focus on the elderly. While there are plenty of seniors who are passionate about the newest technology, many are content to minimize or eliminate their use of the Internet. A 2014 survey found that while close to 90 percent of millennials own smartphones, the number drops to under 40 percent for those over age 65.

If you try to persuade an elderly relative into getting more connected with technology, understand that your efforts may be a double-edged sword. While you might feel frustrated that your parents can’t see your latest tweet every 10 seconds, it can be dangerous to throw an inexperienced user into the depths of the technological wasteland without the right equipment. Someone just learning to navigate the Internet is a minnow swimming with sharks. The elderly are high-value targets by scammers for this very reason.

The key to getting seniors connected while keeping them safe is to find a happy medium, a device that allows the new user to experience what technology has to offer without creating frustration or danger.

One option is a type of computer designed for the elderly. Companies such as Telikin and The Wow Computer have popped up recently, selling computers with ultrasimplified user interfaces to get seniors performing basic tasks such as sending emails and browsing the web. Telikin claims it’s “the world’s easiest computer.” The Wow Computer advertises that its product is “so easy to use, you won’t have to ask your children or grandchildren for help.”

But do these products do the job? Are they worth the price?

These computers often come in the form of all-in-one touchscreen units with large-print icons designed to make navigation easy. If you want to send an email, you just push the big button that says “E-Mail.” Press “Search” and the user can open a web browser. It’s all reminiscent of a late-’90s AOL interface. It makes basic tasks effortless while preventing the user from feeling that he or she may break something.

What’s under the hood? As it turns out, these machines are similar and share similar prices. The Telikin Elite II holds an MSRP of $1,249. That’s almost as much as a new i7 iMac. If you’re expecting similar components to the iMac, however, think again. The Telikin Elite II comes equipped with an Intel Celeron processor, a 500GB SATA hard drive and a mere 2GB of RAM.

These are extremely low-budget parts for a 2015 computer. A traditional desktop with these same components sells for around $200 at Wal-Mart.

Perhaps the custom operating system justifies the other $1,049? As it turns out, all these machines run versions of Linux, the free open-source operating system used on everything from desktops to DVRs. The manufacturer has simply added a user interface to an existing framework.

On the plus side, Linux is generally extremely secure and has a lower malware risk than Windows or Mac computers. Even so, while these systems may indeed make using the Internet easier for seniors, it’s hard to justify needless spending on old hardware and free operating systems. Everything offered by these machines can be replicated at home for a fraction of the cost.

Because Linux is free, you can legally download your flavor (known as a “distribution”) of choice, burn it onto a CD or DVD, and install it on almost any PC — even one with relatively poor specs. There are even Linux distributions preconfigured for the elderly, such as “Eldy Linux,” which has the very same kind of simplified, large button interface. With a $100 Craigslist, computer and a free copy of Eldy Linux, the same experience of a Telikin can be re-created for next to nothing. Even paying a technology consultant to do the installation is far cheaper than buying a specialized computer for seniors.

Want to try it yourself? The official documentation for Ubuntu, the most common Linux distribution, offers a straightforward tutorial on how to turn a downloaded distribution into a Linux installation disc. Check it out at https://help.ubuntu.com/community/BurningIsoHowto.

A decade ago, today’s world of Internet-connected refrigerators, wireless battery charging, and the ubiquitous social encouragement to publicly share every thought would have felt like the setting of a science-fiction novel. At the turn of the millennium, the worst trap a user could expect to fall into was replying to an email from a foreign prince wanting to share bank accounts. Today malware can automatically install itself onto a computer, silently conduct a wire transfer, and then use that device to hack somebody else — no prince required.

For seniors, a simplified Linux system might be a viable alternative to a traditional computer both in security and user-friendliness. Read beyond the advertising and examine exactly what you’re buying, or you might waste money on a Pinto advertised as a Porsche. Install Linux yourself or hire a competent tech person to do so, and you’ll end up with a better product at a fraction of the cost.

Written in collaboration with Dylan Evans, Reveal’s vice president of operations.

This article originally appeared on the IdahoStatesman website.

 

Protecting human assets (Pt. 1): Phones for Kids

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Part 1 of a 2 Part Series

Safeguarding Kids

Each month in this column, we explore ways to safeguard things that are important to you: your assets. Usually, we focus on intangible assets like your credit card number, your identity and company trade secrets. But when you ask people what is most important to them, their families are usually at the top of the list. Having your credit card number stolen makes for a stressful experience, but it pales in comparison to the feeling of having a child or elderly parent’s safety compromised.

While the digital advancements we see daily can sometimes make life easier, they can also make it more complicated and make the act of maintaining a safe environment far more difficult, especially for parents. As of 2011, one in five elementary school students owned a cell phone. Instead of playing pretend and building sand castles, they are spending recess on Snapchat and Facebook. Many young children are exposed to smartphones as infants; instead of handing their little babies rattles, overstressed mothers are reaching more and more for their phones and tablets.

Arming your 9-year-old with a bright shiny new iPhone might make him the coolest kid on the playground, but it also paints a target on his head for both schoolyard and adult thieves. The expression “taking candy from a baby” becomes far more tempting to a thief when that candy is a $400 toy.

If you’re buying a phone for a child, at least consider what you actually want. Do you just want a reliable means of communication in case of emergency? Non-smart “feature phones” are still widely available from every major carrier, especially for their no-contract plans. These phones come in a variety of sizes and user interfaces: flip phones, Blackberry lookalikes with full keyboards, touchscreens and more. They cost somewhere around $10 for the phone and $25 per month for unlimited minutes. There are no malicious apps to download and no time wasted in class on Facebook.

If you really feel your child needs a smartphone, take precautions. Certain apps have user interfaces more suited to children. A parent sets up the main administrative account, locked with a password, and determines which apps and features the child can use. The phone is then put into a simple mode that allows only those. The appropriately titled “Kid Mode” by Zoodles (a default on newer HTC phones) is the most commonly seen app of this kind for Android devices.

For iPhones and iPads, consider the options in the “Settings” panel. The “Guided Access” option (Settings > General > Accessibility > Guided Access) allows someone to lock a device to allow the use of only a single app. All other features are locked until the user enters the correct PIN. This is useful if you load a game on your own device and hand it to your child.

An even more important collection of settings is found in the “Restrictions” panel (Settings > General > Restrictions). This allows an administrator (such as a parent) to control exactly what the device is and isn’t allowed to do. Parents can disable in-app purchases, control the types of websites that are available through Safari (or disable it altogether), and limit or remove a child’s ability to play games or add friends in the Apple Game Center.

There is one distinct advantage to giving your offspring a smartphone: You now have a GPS tracker on your child, and he or she will never want to leave it behind. Apps like Cerberus, PhoneSheriff, NetNanny and My Mobile Watchdog allow parents to precisely pinpoint a child’s GPS location, listen in on her conversations and intercept her communications.

Having access to this information may seem intrusive, but consider: If your child was communicating with a dangerous individual online, you’d be the first to know. In the horrifying possibility of a child abduction, having access to the phone’s GPS location could mean the difference between life and death.

As with any scientific advancements, smartphone technology can be applied positively or negatively. Parents need to be aware of these options to make educated decisions about how to approach the smartphone issue with their kids.

Notably, many of these same concepts can also be used to help the elderly, including a parent with dementia or failing health. Keeping track of a parent’s location and helping to block bad web content can prevent your parent from getting scammed or being physically injured. A number of technological advancements are marketed directly at the elderly, such as emergency cellphone wristbands, remote monitoring systems for nursing homes, and most interestingly a special type of desktop computer that provides a simplified user interface for the elderly.

These kinds of computers come with a specific set of advantages and disadvantages, and as with all new technology there are many consumer questions that need answered. Are they really useful? Are they worth the money over a standard computer? What are the alternatives? Next month, we will continue our “Human Asset” series by looking at these elderly targeted computers in depth, as well as a handful of alternative solutions.

Written in collaboration with information security expert Dylan Evans, Reveal’s vice president of operations.

This article originally appeared on the IdahoStatesman website.