WebWatcher Review: Parental Control Software
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|Blocklist is smart and monitoring is comprehensive, though site blocker and monitor are easy to get around|
[Editor's Note: Right now, Web Watcher is offering NextAdvisor users 40% off their services. Just follow any link to Web Watcher from NextAdvisor to automatically get this discount.]
WebWatcher is distinct in this category for a few reasons. One: it is not specifically aimed at the activities of children. Two: it's meant to run completely invisibly; the watched user will not even know they're being watched. When they hit a blocked site, they'll be met with an error page almost indistinguishable from a normal connection error.
Since WebWatcher is meant to be truly invisible, there is no system tray icon or other mark that the application is on the computer. Instead the WebWatcher is mostly administered via a web-based interface. You have to log in every time (and, annoyingly enough, accept the terms and conditions every time). However, there is a basic control panel that can be accessed via a hot-key sequence (and password), allowing you to start and stop the various monitoring modules. This hot-key sequence is changeable in the preferences too, so you can make it something less obvious than the default.
Like other parental control software, WebWatcher works in two ways: blocking and monitoring. It's pretty good at both, but we should point out right off the top that it has trouble with proxies. Big trouble. We were able to hit our set of proxy test sites with ease, and could access content that should have been blocked.
When you load WebWatcher's interface you won't find any categories blocked by default. You'll have to choose these. The categories are diverse, and allow a fair amount of drill-down so you can be truly selective about what you're blocking. This is one of the program's strong points: it doesn't over-block. We were, for instance, able to block pornography without blocking gray queries such as "chicken breasts," "The Gay Science," or "Sex linked differences." In fact we could block porn, but still still get Wikipedia articles on sex education topics (complete with pictures). Don't worry, you can disallow sex education too.
The monitoring is very good, almost creepy. It can record keystrokes, sites visited, searches performed, IM chats, emails, and can be set up to take screen shots of a web browser when certain alert words are entered. These alert words, which users add using the web interface, are crucial to the workings of WebWatcher because they not only trigger screen shots, but help you to more efficiently go through the massive amounts of data that can be returned from a day of web surfing. So, if you're concerned about your child, or another member of your household accessing content about "drugs", you can choose to just look at pages and emails that mention the word "drugs" (obviously, you'll want to add some variations on that theme). You get unlimited alert-word screenshots with the purchase price, though as with all data on WebWatcher it only stays online for 15 days (though an upgrade gets you more storage).
Your first purchase also comes with 1,000 free "Smart Camera" screen shots. These are continuous screen shots which can be triggered by virtually any program/keyword combination (though they're initially configured for web browsers). After you go through your free sample, you'll have to pay $17.00 for another 10,000 shots if you wish to continue using it. You can set the duration, however, so you can really stretch the value if you opt for less frequent screen shots.
It did well monitoring Yahoo! Messenger, Yahoo! Webmail, and Windows Mail. According to the literature, it can monitor AOL Instant Messenger, Windows Messenger, and MSN Messenger as well.
As we mentioned above, WebWatcher is easily stymied by proxies, allowing savvy users to surf pretty much invisibly. A further weakness is revealed in its inability to block sites appearing in the Google cache. Even when you specify that "proxies" should be blocked, it does little more than block web pages that explicitly mention proxies (but not, for instance, sites that mention cloaking). A bigger problem is that alert words that come up on sites accessed through proxies will not be detected, so no screen shots there. If you sift through the website reports you'll probably be able to find that something is up, but you may not know what (unless you continue to use the Smart Camera).
WebWatcher is a somewhat pricey solution. The initial purchase is $97.00. There's an additional $29.95 charge if you want to receive product updates throughout the year. Licensing after the initial purchase is $67.00 per year. We have mixed feelings about the product. On the one hand, it has one of the smartest and most accurate blocklists we've ever seen. On the other hand, it gives proxies a free pass, so its blocking techniques will not stop savvy kids. In fact, given its focus on monitoring, WebWatcher seems more geared towards catching cheating spouses and slacking employees than it is at keeping kids away from nasty content.
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Here is the NextAdvisor review of WebWatcher: http://www.nextadvisor.com/parental_con ... review.php