by Martin VanWoudenberg
With many clear dangers and temptations on the Internet, and the prolific use of it among all age groups, it’s logical that many would seek a filtering solution. How can you ensure your teen isn’t looking at things he/she shouldn’t? How can you keep your pre-teen safe from online predators? How can a family man fight the temptation he faces, when nobody monitors what he’s doing late at night? Enter Covenant Eyes. It promises a suite of tools for keeping Internet users safe and accountable.
Over the course of several months, I ran the program through its paces to see how easy it might be to trick, break, or work around its system. Its ability to prevent access to offensive sites, and report ones that may be questionable is key to its usability and success. But does it work, and should you buy it?
What it is
Covenant Eyes’ primary function is as an accountability service. A person, the “user,” creates an account, installs the software, and then selects an “accountability partner” – someone who will receive a detailed account of all the user’s surfing habits, including search terms they typed in, sites visited, and time spent online.
A confirmation email is then sent to the accountability partner. No special account is required for their part, and no cost is involved – all they have to do is confirm they have agreed to take on this role with you. For the users, the accountability portion runs at roughly $9 a month, and at $10.50 if you also want the filtering option they offer. Additional users can be added for another $2 per month per user. In terms of cost, it’s reasonable.
Installation of the software was simple. It prompts for account name and password, and connects. Once installed, a user cannot access any Internet content without logging in. The program can be set to log in the user as soon as the computer boots up, so kids don’t need to go through any additional steps, or know the password, to operate under its control. The password is the key to allowing access to sites blocked by the filter and for changing settings. As such, it should not be shared with your teen.
How did it measure up?
Upon installation, the content filter was immediate. When tested on the main suspect sites, and small blogs with questionable content, all of them were blocked. Even “tamer” sites, such as swimsuit sites and wallpapers of celebrities were blocked. A little popup shows a message in the taskbar telling you the site is forbidden, and your browser simply remains on your current page. I found that a few sites were blocked that I felt shouldn’t have been, such as a blog with movie reviews, and an art site that featured no offensive content (though perhaps may have in the past), and here the master password allows a temporary or permanent override. However, it still will flag as potentially offensive when your partner views the report.
YouTube was fully open, under the default settings. The popup was telling me that site was being blocked, but in reality it wasn’t. I was able to load up and watch any video, including ones with nudity. Parents may think there’s no real offensive content on YouTube, but there most certainly is. The master settings can be adjusted to block sites such as YouTube entirely, and it’s certainly not a bad idea.
Filter had problems with Google images
Under the default settings, Google image search fared even worse. Like its normal search function which brings up web pages and articles, the image search allows simple entry of key words to bring forward hundreds or thousands of images that match that description. These are pulled off a list of sites as broad as the Internet itself, so results can range from tame to horrific.
Here, again, the filter didn’t block anything at all. It would flash repeatedly, telling me it was blocking things, but there were no images I wasn’t able to enlarge and look at. When I looked at the Covenant Eyes logs of my activity and saw what the filter was blocking, it listed mostly a host of advertising content sites. It’s great to see that ads were blocked (who doesn’t hate ads?) but that wasn’t the core concern here. If I attempted to visit the sites on which some of those images were hosted, the filter blocked me. However, I could still enlarge just the photo, so the effect was essentially the same.
Stock photo sites were also wide open, and they feature their share of nude photos (and thousands of legitimate ones) as well. The logs showed those site visited, and also my search strings. So, in that sense, it’s very thorough, but in order to see that detail, I had to go beyond the report that is emailed to the accountability partner. I had to view the online logs, which give the complete picture.
The same applies to the Google searches, which is nice to see. You won’t prevent initial access, but the online logs will tell the tale – if an accountability partner has the patience to go through them all.
It does ask a lot from an accountability partner
After only a few hours of messing around with the program and testing its limitations, the logs contained over 460 items. Depending on how accountable you’re planning on keeping your partner or your children, checking up on these items could be a significant task each week. It’s aided by the ability to view the blocked and questionable content specifically (which it highlights in various colors), but it still requires a real time commitment.
Adjusting the filter
Of course, the job of an accountability partner is a lot easier if there are very few potentially-offensive sites being viewed in the first place. This is the job of the filter: to control which sites are accessible, and filter out the rest. However, to make the most of this useful feature requires a little tinkering “under the hood.”
Logging into the Covenant Eyes site, allows simple modifications on a user’s account. I could add YouTube to the list of blocked sites without issue, and after that it was blocked entirely. I could also create separate accounts for various age groups and, for example, block it for my primary grader but not for university-age offspring. This would require the additional user accounts at $2 per month, but if your age range is great, it is a sound investment. You can set the filter to such an extent that only specific sites you allow are able to be viewed. Any inherent filter weaknesses can be modified here, but it’s important that users realize that these settings are here and need to be utilized. Parents should not simply install the filter and assume all is perfect. When it comes to the Internet your teen is likely smarter than you.
The final report comes to accountability partners on Sundays, and lists all questionable activity as red flagged, and provides extensive links based on activity. The YouTube videos watched are linked accurately, so the partner can see specifically what is watched, even if the site was not blocked by the filter. This will likely be very useful for parents who do not want to block the site entirely.
Other content blocked by the filters is logged and can be viewed by the accountability partner in the email, or via more detailed logs on the Covenant Eyes website. When one clicks on the links, a message comes up that the content is likely objectionable. However, there is the option to view it regardless. This is likely a nice middle road to take. It does not just drop the content onto your screen, but does allow you to confirm it if needed. However, if the partner is also running Covenant Eyes, they would likely not be able to confirm it, as their filter would block it, and their own accountability partner would receive a red flag that they tried to access unsavory content. It is easy to imagine an endless circle of flags as each tries to confirm the other’s sins and gets their own recorded at the same time.
A weakness in the report
The main fault in the report exists because there is no way to see which sites are blocked by the filter due to ads or other pop-up content that was not knowingly or deliberately accessed versus content that the user specifically tried to look at. There could be a host of flags that your partner sees, but it is simply questionable content being pushed onto otherwise legitimate sites. Both user and partner should be aware of this, as otherwise it could make for some awkward conversations of “you did,” and “no I didn’t.”
Logs also show hourly usage, and the times of day when the Internet was used. This is useful as well. If your partner is on the Internet for hours between Midnight and 2AM, then there’s a basis for a conversation about that as well. Addictions often come to light in the wee hours of the night. The filter also has the option to automatically disconnect the Internet at a certain time of day, preventing that late-night surfing.
Two other interesting features make Covenant Eyes unique in their approach. In order to remove the software, a master password is needed, and specific “unlock password key” is required to complete the un-installation. A user needs to log into the main site with their password to generate the key. The key is valid only for a few hours, so it cannot be recorded and used discretely later. This means teens won’t be able to uninstall the program for the weekend, and quickly put it back on before Mom and Dad get back.
There’s also a PANIC button available. Pressing it will shut down all Internet access entirely. To get it back, you need to called the Covenant Eyes people, and get a special unlock code. It is a drastic step for when all else is failing. With a strong filter and a good partner, I don’t see it requiring great use, but if you cannot overcome the temptation, perhaps this is a good option.
The system works with mobile systems as well, accessing content via Hotel wireless or Starbucks connections. When you connect, so does it. People who travel a lot on business, and face more time alone, would do well with this in place. Though I did not have the opportunity to test it, there is a feature here that works with mobile devices, such as the iPhone and iPad as well. The Internet is available from a great many places, so this software is a broad-based solution.
Overall, I found Covenant Eyes to be a clever and solid filtering solution, once a few modifications were made to its default settings. The accountability is a unique and powerful feature, and well worth the low cost. Adults, teens away at college, young teens at home, and anyone else who uses the Internet could benefit from something of this sort. Nobody is immune to temptation, and knowing that Dad, your son, an elder, or a friend is viewing all the sites you visited is likely enough to give anyone pause before clicking the link. It’s a solid, biblically-based, set of tools that any family computer should have installed.
Filtering – A system that watches what sites a user is trying to visit, and determines whether they should be displayed based on potentially offensive content. If the site passes the filter’s test, the site appears normally. If it does not pass the test, the web browser will not load the page at all.
Reporting – A system that keeps a log of all sites visited and all links clicked. The report is analyzed and potentially offensive sites are flagged in red and sent to the accountability partner to look over. The user does not see their own report, and cannot edit it before it is sent out.