A Gate for the Net

One of the things I do is write a quarterly column for the Communication Magazine of my church district (Western Ontario District of PAOC)The magazine is called Connections and it is sent out to over 500 credential holders and leaders and the title of my column is ‘Tech Pass”.  I usually write about various software/web apps and technology tools I come across that I think are useful for churches and ministry. For a copy of the latest magazine you can get it from the wod.paoc.org website.

The internet is an awesome tool and incredible resource.  In the last 10 years or so it has grown from humble beginnings as a hobby-for-some into a multi-media delivery & application platform that many of us wonder how we’d ever get along without!  However, along with the good things the internet brings us is also the bad – things like viruses, spam (not the ham wannabe, but those annoying Viagra like ads you get in your email), and evil websites (sites that promote crime, pornography and the like).

One of the common questions I get from people who are newer to the internet is how to protect your computer from the “evil” found on it.  In this article I’m not going to address the virus and spam problem but I would like to focus on some tricks that will help you put up a “gate” to keep unwanted internet stuff out.

Before I do that however, a brief lesson on how the internet works (yeah, I know, you always wondered didn’t you?  Well humor me for a bit… Oh, and one caveat – I’ve really simplified things here, so you technical folk keep that in mind…)

First off, every computer that is connected to the Internet is part of a network (of computers), even the one in your home.  For example, you may have a modem at home that your internet service provider (ISP) provided you to connect to the internet – or your computer at your office may be connected to a local area network (LAN) that in turn at some point is connected to an ISP that your workplace contracts with for internet service.  Either way, when you are connected to your ISP you are connected to their network.   The ISP in turn may be connected to another service provider and is a part of that network.  In simple terms the internet is simply a network of networks.

I’m going to skip a few steps in the story (really, you’d want me to…).   We all know that there are different Internet Service Providers (as in Rogers, Bell etc.) – now, what happens is that all the ISP’s in the world agree to connect to each other via what’s called Network Access Points or NAPS.   In the real internet, dozens of large service providers interconnect at NAPS in different cities, and all the data flows between the networks at those points.  In this way, every computer on the internet is able to connect to another computer.

However, in order for computers to successfully communicate with each other there has to be some way of knowing where the data is to go to and for responses to know where to come back to.  This is where IP addresses come in.  IP stands for Internet Protocol and every machine on the internet has an IP address.  An IP address is a number something like this – 212.27.52.1

In its infancy, the internet consisted of a few computers hooked together with modems and telephone lines.  You could only make connections by providing the IP address of the computer you wanted to connect with – that was fine when there were only a few computers to connect to (hosts) but eventually that became unwieldy as more and more “hosts” came online.

In 1983, the University of Wisconsin created something called the Domain Name System (DNS) which maps text names to IP addresses automatically.  So for humans, it became much easier to remember www.iwanttogohere.com instead of the IP address of iwanttogohere.com’s host computer.  This easy to remember address is known as a “Domain Name”.  When you type a Domain Name into a browser address bar it first goes to a Domain Name Server (which usually defaults to what your ISP is providing as a Domain Name server) where the address is compared against a database to see if there is an IP address connected with it.  If the IP address is found then your computer goes to that IP address and makes the connection.  If it’s not found then the server will “talk” to other Domain Name Servers and see if any of them know where iwanttogohere.com points to.  If no results are found that’s when you get a “this page not found” message in your browser.

Take a breather – you’ve come a long way through those paragraphs!  That is (very roughly) how the internet works.  Why did I explain all this?  Because the service I want to tell you about is called OpenDNS.com. Hmmm – recognize anything in that name?  Yup, it’s got “DNS” in it.  Want to take a guess at what it does then?  Go ahead, then read on.

OpenDNS.com is better than nearly any other internet filtering type of application you can download or run on your system because it isn’t software.  Instead, OpenDNS.com is merely a Domain Name Server which you can use for sending ALL your internet requests through (did you guess right?  Good for you! Email me and let me know and I’ll send you a prize).  Essentially, after setting things up, what you do is instruct your computer to check the OpenDNS servers for the IP address of the domain names you want to visit instead of your ISP’s DNS server.  The power of OpenDNS kicks in at that point because not only will it check for the IP address but it will also screen that IP address against any “rules” that you set to make sure it’s something  you consider “safe” to visit.   You can also use OpenDNS to track all the website activity from your computer.

I’ve used OpenDNS.com at home for about two years now to keep track on what my kids are doing on the internet and also to block them from visiting certain types of sites.  It has been the easiest, and most thorough tool I have ever used and I highly recommend it.

How easy is it?  Well if you go to this page -> https://www.opendns.com/start/ and follow the instructions  you should be able to start using opendns.com in only 2 minutes (they even use pictures to explain it…nice, pictures are always good). However, it will take a little bit longer to fine tune the filters the way you want.

Really, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have some sort of “gate” on your computer to protect you from the “evil” of the internet – especially when it’s this easy.  You may want to recommend it to the families in your church and even consider using it on your church network (IT guys – OpenDNS.com has some great instructions on their site for you).

For some of you this won’t be new.  I was reminded recently of OpenDNS.com when I received a question about it from one of the readers of this column (thanks Ingrid D.!) and it was mentioned in a WOD email blast, but nevertheless for those of you who haven’t tried it out I encourage you to do so.

BONUS TIP:

Most search tools on the internet have some sort of advanced selection options where you can turn on safe searching.  For example – I do a lot of image searches using Google’s Image database – However, I make sure I set the “SafeSearch” filter to “strict filtering” – otherwise there is the chance that some searches will return some raunchy images that are not something I want to see.  To do this, just make sure you click on the “Advanced Image Search” text next to the search box.  The SafeSearch options are at the bottom of the list.

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