A look at the tools that enable you to control and monitor how others use the PCs in your home
An increasing number of people are taking advantage of low PC prices to spread multiple computers around the house, connecting them in order to share files, printers and an internet connection. And thanks to the Windows XP Network Setup Wizard included in Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), it is now much easier to do.
However, the benefits afforded by a home network don't stop at sharing music and images: network applications can tightly regulate exactly who is able to access what resources, what times of day they can access them and how long they can spend doing it.
What's more, the software required to set access privileges to up to five PCs can be had for just £32. In a Computeractive two-for-one special, we'll also explain how you can actually control activities on another PC in real time, even to the point of shutting it down. There's a range of software to enable this, costing from £30 to £139, but there are free trials available for many of these programs.
Beyond the urge of the casual megalomaniac, these projects will appeal to parents, guardians and teachers who want to make sure that the children in their care do not spend too long on the PC when they could be engaged in other activities.
Controlling a network is challenging but by no means beyond the average home user. Many new PCs come with the necessary network connections already configured, whether using cables such as Ethernet or wireless technology like Wi-Fi.
The XP Network Setup Wizard provides straightforward advice on how to connect the relevant hardware and there are a number of specific online resources that offer additional assistance.
In the course of this article, we will show you how to install and configure a program called Child Control that allows you to set time limits on specific activities, like playing games and watching DVD, while allowing others applications, such as word processors, spreadsheets and revision aids, to be freely used. It can also limit overall daily PC usage, to make sure that the much maligned 'Playstation generation' gets out of its chair and into the fresh air more often.
Knowing that a guardian is able to instantly deny or limit PC or internet usage also represents an excellent incentive for children to do some of the things around the house that they don't like doing in order to secure their computer privileges.
What you need
Microsoft is rarely the subject of praise but the Windows XP Network Setup Wizard included in Service Pack 2 makes the configuration of a basic network very easy, providing, of course, that the necessary network ports, modems and cables have been properly installed and connected.
To launch the Windows XP Network Setup Wizard, click on the Network and Internet Connections icon in the Control Panel under the Start menu, then click on Network Connections and under Common Tasks, click on Network Setup Wizard (users with the latest version of SP2 can find the Network Setup Wizard in the Control Panel itself).
Choose the relevant option according to whether the modem is directly connected to the PC you are working on, or is attached elsewhere in the network (the examples provided will give you a better idea of which option is relevant to your set-up).
Click on the Next button, and give your computer a name and a description if it has none already (make a note of this). In the next screen, assign a name to your workgroup - Homenet for example - and make a note of it.
If you want to share files with other computers on the network, and either allow other people to access a printer attached to your PC or vice versa, choose the 'Turn on file and printer sharing' option, then click on Next.
The wizard then gives the option of creating a Network Setup Disk, either on floppy disk, USB memory key or another type of removable storage, which is very useful if you are going to attach more computers to the network.
One basic but very important rule of networking is that one user must be designated as the system administrator. This person takes on responsibility for managing the network, defining user names and passwords, assigning access rights to specific folders or resources like printers and other attached hardware.
To set yourself up as an administrator, open the Control Panel and click on the User Accounts icon, then Create a new account. Type in a login name, for example MainUser, and click on the Next button. Make sure the Computer Administrator option is chosen and click on Next.
You should then create accounts for other people using the PC, making sure you choose the Limited rather than Computer Administrator option so that you retain control of the network. For each account you have created, double-click on the relevant icon and click Create a password.
Setting up Child Control
Armed with network administrator rights, you can now set up user control and monitoring applications. One of the best things about Child Control is that a fully featured 30-day trial for up to five users is available to install and try before any purchase is made.
After it is installed on each PC that is to be controlled, Child Control asks the administrator to specify a password to access its settings. Obviously, this password should be known only to you.
Timing is everything
After choosing either to evaluate the software or register it, you are presented with the main program interface, which shows a list of users who either log in to the same PC you use or those that log in from elsewhere in the house. From the top drop-down menu choose the name of the user whose access rights you want to control. Then click on the Time Limits option from the menu at the right and tick the Activate PC and Internet Time Limits box.
Permitted 'PC On' times are set to two and a half hours per day, 25 hours per week and 90 hours per month by default but these can be changed. Remember to save the settings each time you make a change, and make sure that the relevant user's name is highlighted in the drop-down menu.
Once usage limits have been reached, Child Control sends the user a message informing that they will be logged off or the computer will be shut down (you can define which in the Settings screen from the menu on the left of the screen) within one, two, three or five minutes, giving them sufficient time to save any documents or games files before their session ends.
The same method is used to define 'Internet On' times, although any session limits set here apply only to the use of Microsoft's Internet Explorer; if a different browser is being used, you need to click on the 'Settings' sub-heading underneath 'Internet On Times' and type in the name and hard disk location of the application to be included.
As well as setting limits on how long any one user can use the computer, Child Control also allows you to set the hours of the day that they can log on. For instance, you can block them using the computer before 9am or after 9pm, or from using it at all on specific days of the week.
Child Control also allows you to prevent certain applications being used or make sure they are used for set periods within the user's overall limits. If you want to make sure that a child doesn't spend his or her entire allocated PC time playing games, using Chat programs or watching DVDs, for instance, you can limit an application to only 30 minutes or an hour per day, whilst leaving other applications that might be used for homework or revision purposes unmetered to encourage children to use them more.
Click on the Progams tab from the menu on the left-hand side of the Child Control interface, and click the Add button to open up the Windows explorer. You can then browse the lists of folders on the PC to find the applications that you want to limit (Child Control searches for program files, usually shown with the relevant icon, by default), highlight them, click the Open button and then set daily, weekly and monthly time limits for that application.
If you leave the 'Allow EXE to run after timeout' option unticked, Child Control will automatically shut down the application when the time limit for its usage is reached. The 'EXE' simply means 'executable'- a jargon term for program.
Child Control also provides basic content filtering facilities that allow you to block access to websites containing certain words or phrases; the default list contains words such as 'porn', 'xxx' and 'nazis' but you can type in your own. When the user attempts to access websites containing these words, the browser is automatically shut down and a message sent to inform that user that unsuitable content has been detected.
You can also bar users from accessing certain sites altogether and redirect them to another web page rather than shutting the browser down. Alternatively, a 'white list' of allowed websites can be set up, with users restricted to accessing only these sites.
Handily, Child Control also allows you to stop users tampering with system settings like the time and date, display or network properties, or the Control Panel.
Now for the second part of our project. A variety of applications designed to help you see exactly what people are doing on the PCs on your network is also available. One of these is DanWare Data's NetOp Remote Control, a version of which is commonly run in UK schools to make sure that pupils aren't getting up to things they shouldn't be on school PCs.
Costing £139 excluding VAT for a starter pack of one guest and one host licence (£33 for each extra licence), NetOp Remote Control is expensive, but it's an accomplished program with good support options. A range of lower-cost shareware utilities offering less advanced functions can be found here.
One of these utilities, Anyplace Control, is free to try for 30 days, and costs $60 (£32) to buy. There's no facility for browsing available hosts on the network, so you will need the IP address of the PC to which you want to gain access, but it delivers the same basic functionality of NetOp Remote Control. It does, however, lack advanced features like file transfer, inventory information, online chat and shared clipboards.
NetOp lets you log on to a PC over the network and see exactly what the user is doing, examine internet history files or Child Control log files to see which websites they have been visiting, for example, and manually shut down programs and the system itself if required. The PC from which you exert control is called the 'host', while other PCs are called 'guests'.
When running the NetOp Host and Guest applications for the first time on each PC, simply accept the default set-up options, making sure in the case of the Host that you click on 'Start with Windows' so that the program is launched automatically whenever the PC is switched on. It's then just a matter of clicking on the 'Browse' button to discover the other computers running NetOp host on the network, highlighting one of them, clicking on the 'Connect' button and typing in the password.
Once the administrator has gained access to the PC, he or she can block the user's keyboard and mouse input in case they object to being snooped on and take control of the remote system. The user PC can then be explored within the NetOp Guest window in the normal way, and can be restarted and shut down by clicking on predefined buttons on the NetOp Guest toolbar.
The examples we've used here are only the tip of the iceberg as far as network management and monitoring applications are concerned, and we're sure to publish more projects along these lines, especially as digital home technologies become more common. Be warned, though: once the habit of control takes hold, it is a very difficult thing to give up.
As a final word, while it is clearly possible to control a wide range of user activity via a network, make sure all household members, and especially children, are made to understand that this is for their own good, rather than some kind of punishment. Children's PC use should be controlled, but trust is earned by talking about it openly.
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