Home' LAPTOP Magazine : February 2012 Contents Dangerous Toys
Lack of parental controls for tablets and smartphones puts adult content one
Imagine this conversation taking place between
your child and Apple’s Siri voice assistant:
Child: Siri, when was Abraham Lincoln
Siri: This might answer your question. (Shows
list of Abraham Lincoln’s vital stats.)
Child: You’re great, Siri.
Siri: I am good, but not great.
Child: Don’t be so hard on yourself, Siri.
Siri:I found 9 escorts... 8 of them are fairly close
This is the text of an actual Siri conversation we
conducted, exactly the kind of talk a child might
have with the device. Among other things, we
asked Siri, “Where do I buy a pot for mom?” and
the voice-enabled asistant for the iPhone 4S
referred us to a headshop where we could buy drug
paraphernalia, if not the drug itself. Who knows
what else a kid might stumble upon when talking
to Apple’s pimp over IP?
Lest you think Apple is only shipping Siri to
adults, let me refer you to the company’s very first
commercial for the technology, in which a girl no
older than 10 asks her iPhone what a weasel looks
like. Unfortunately, Apple’s not alone in marketing
something to children that isn’t kid-friendly. Most
mobile devices we’ve tested don’t come with adequate
parental controls, let alone an interface that young
children can use. Parents need to beware, and the
industry needs to do better.
Amazon’s Kindle Fire has a lame parental control
feature which lets you block in-app purchases,
but doesn’t block purchases of apps, movies,
and books. Just as bad, the Fire doesn’t provide
a way to restrict access to media, so Junior could
accidentally end up browsing dad’s copy of the
Kama Sutra. And the carousel navigation element
on Kindle Fire’s home screen poses another
threat, highlighting recently accessed content.
Your thumbnail shortcut to Human Centipede 2
will be right in his face.
On the Nook Tablet, you can set a PIN that users
must enter to purchase things, and disable the
browser and social functions. However, you can’t
stop kids from reading your already-purchased copy
of A Touch So Wicked. Plus, if a child hits the giant
home button by accident (or on purpose), she’ll get
transported to the home screen where there’s no
simple way to get back to her book or app.
Most Android phones and tablets also lack built-in
parental controls. Though the Android Market app can
be configured to require a password before you buy
something—and you can require a PIN or an unlock
code to get into the device—Android doesn’t have a
built-in way to lock certain users out of certain apps.
iOS users have the ability to lock down individual apps
from the control panel, but Siri isn’t on the list.
While Android users can install third-party parental
control apps from the Market, these aren’t always
fool-proof. I installed two parental control apps—
Android Parental Control and Smart AppLock—on
my Samsung Stratosphere. It was easy for me to exit
both apps with the home key, tapping task manager,
and killing the control task.
Realizing how dangerous standard tablets and
phones can be for young children, parents can opt
for kid-targeted tablets such as the VTech InnoPad
or the LeapFrog LeapPad. However, these devices
don’t offer the breadth or quality of content found
in iTunes, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.
I’m not a parent yet, but as a geek, I ’m appalled
at the lack of solid technical thinking that goes
into these products. Clearly, Apple either actively
configured or passively allowed Siri’s natural
language settings to interpret dual-meaning words
and phrases such as “pot” as a search for drugs.
Perhaps the same stoner decided to interpret a
certain word in the phrase “don’t be so hard on
yourself” as a request for prostitution. Where’s the
parent planning in that?
The powers that be at Amazon should have real-
ized that the Kindle Fire doesn’t stop children from
purchasing apps or viewing mature content and
done something before they shipped. The product
managers at Barnes & Noble should have done
something to block mature content and create a
safe sandbox environment for young children.
Most parents realize if you’re going to let your
kids surf unsupervised, you either need a child-
friendly browser such as Zoodles or you have to
have “the talk.” But Siri isn’t the open Internet, and
your local apps and media files aren’t the open
Internet either. If companies are going to market
these devices to families, they have a responsibil-
ity to create a safe environment for children. No
parent should have to explain to his five-year-old
what an escort service is because of a poorly or
irresponsibly programmed device.
Laptop | February 2012
NewS & TreNdS
by Avram Piltch
Online Editorial Director Avram Piltch guides LAPTOP’s web coverage. He devised several of our real-world benchmarks. Read his semi-monthly
column at www.laptopmag.com/geeksgeek, and follow @geekinchief on Twitter.
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