What Google is to search, Skype is to a free online phone service. Skype has become the phone service of choice for unlimited long distance calls.
For kids, it’s a feature-rich phone system offering cool features like chatting, file sharing and video support. However, with its ease of use, children are exposed to online dangers like bullying, viruses and obscene material. And like other web-based chat services, it has become a hunting ground for sexual predators looking for child targets.
So What is Skype?
Skype is a web application that essentially turns your personal computer or smartphone into a telephone. It is the most popular Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) software, supporting texting, voice and video chats.
Skype’s free version allows members to do unlimited conference calls, video calls, file transfers, voice messaging, instant messaging and screen sharing with other Skype contacts. The paid service subscription offers enhanced features including limitless outbound calls to landlines and cell phones, as well as features like call forwarding, caller ID and voice mail. For more details on pricing, click here.
How does Skype work?
In order to use Skype, you must first download the software available on the official website, offered in both computer and mobile versions. Mobile users also have the option of downloading the app from their smartphone’s app store or iTunes. Upon downloading the program, you will be asked to create an account.
Quite simply, a Skype user in Australia or New Zealand can call a Skype user in North America through the computer or a Skype-compatible telephone.
Its peer-to-peer system relies on computers sending information back and forth to each other over the Internet. It operates similar to web chatting, but instead you are speaking to someone through a headset and speaker or smartphone as if you were on a regular telephone.
The Skype window displays a user’s contact list, from which you can see contacts’ online status, initiate calls or send an instant message, voicemail or file. The instant messaging client allows users to do text, voice calls and file transfers synchronously.
The application works behind a firewall to protect computers and networks from outside access and malicious interference. Since all communications are routed through the Internet, all calls and instant messages are encrypted end-to-end to guard against security and privacy risks including eavesdropping. No online activities however, can ensure 100% security and privacy of your personal information and communications.
How is Skype used by young people today?
With over 200 million Skype users worldwide, it remains the cheap, cost-effective alternative to expensive international calls. Statistics show a considerable percentage of Skype users are 14 years of age and older.
Kids are mainly using Skype to:
• Stay in touch with family and close friends
• Catch up with friends outside their local calling zones
• Connect with other students or classrooms across the country or globe through video conferencing to collaborate on research projects, pod/screencasts, or to create virtual presentations
• Connect to a virtual classroom or webinar for distant learning
Skype as an Educational Tool
Skype has actively pursued a policy of promoting itself as a tool for educators. Northeast Elementary 3rd graders and Kennedy Middle School 6th graders in Waltham, Massachusetts, connect classroom to classroom using Skype with video cams. Students are encouraged to become virtual Skype penpals, so they can collaborate on projects.
Some teachers have also partnered with authors of books they are studying in class, so the authors can talk directly to the students through Skype.
The Library Media Center at Lake Placid Middle High School, in Lake Placid, New York, has developed a Skype-user manual that provides not only useful examples of Skype classroom projects but also planning tools for its implementation as well as security and computer settings.
In addition, Skype offers plug-in applets to enhance its use as an educational tool.
The dangers of “Skypeing”
Like any online community, some Skype users engage in inappropriate behaviours. Young people may be exposed to material that may be sexual, hateful, violent or illegal.
- Paedophiles: Chat, email and instant messaging are the preferred methods of sexual predators for finding and grooming children. In a two-week undercover investigation by the Sunday Times, reporters who posed on Skype as children between 10 and 14 received sexually solicitations by adult men who requested a face-to-face meeting and pornographic images of themselves.
- Viruses and malware: File sharing in peer-to-peer networks like Skype is a popular channel for the spread of malware (e.g., worms, viruses, Trojans). Malicious software may be embedded in file attachments sent through email or chats to damage a computer or collect personal data like credit card information and passwords. However, of the instant messaging (IM) applications (i.e., AIM, MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger), Skype’s architecture is least vulnerable to exploits from viruses and worms.
- Online Fraud, Phishing and Spam: IM platforms are common avenues for delivering pornographic material, spam and violent or hateful content. Underground cyber criminals for instance, are using Skype accounts to conduct fraudulent activities. The site warns against emails from websites or merchants that claim to resell Skype products and request private data. A child on Skype may unwittingly give out private information to legitimate-sounding business or organization representatives.
Spam on Skype continues to be a growing problem, where users are increasingly inconvenienced by chat boxes soliciting financial information from fictional banks or containing sexually explicit images and messages.
- Hackers: Like any other online service, Skype is susceptible to hacker exploits, most of which are criminally motivated and aim for access to accounts and personal information (e.g., passwords and credit card details).
Protecting Kids from Skype Dangers
Skype safety checklist:
1) Don’t post personal information in your Skype profile (e.g., email address, birthday, phone numbers, location or full name).
- Parts of your Skype profile are publicly available to everyone else on Skype, and filling in your profile is optional.
2) Never reply to any instant messages or contact, phone call, video call or screen sharing requests from someone you don’t know.
- Even contacts you know may not be the person who is making the connection to you. For example, malicious software can compromise IM accounts and send out harmful links to a person’s contact list.
- Skype assigns each user a digital certificate (a form of identification) so users can verify the identity of people sending or receiving a call or chat. With users’ digital credentials, Skype users can prove their true identification through a process called authentication. You can find more information on digital certificates here.
3) Never accept a file from someone you don’t know, including email attachments.
- If it’s a suspicious-looking attachment from one of your contacts, contact them to confirm the email is legitimate.
4) Choose a strong password for your Skype account. Hackers try lists of common passwords and password variations to crack passwords.
- Use a combination of letters, numbers and characters.
- Avoid using your name, phone number, pet’s name and birth date.
- Choose a password that is at least eight characters long.
- Include upper and lower case letters.
- Change your password every 90 days or immediately if you feel your account has been breached.
5) Keep an eye out for any emails posing as Skype and notifying you of available security updates. Skype will prompt users to install updates through a popup dialog box, not through an email.
– If a “Skype” email redirects you to another website, double check that the web address says skype.com and does not contain any additional characters or words (e.g., skype1.com).
6) Never reply to requests for private data (e.g., financial details, login, and password) that are sent through emails, embedded links in emails or chats.
- Skype will only request payment, order details or ticket tracking numbers for troubleshooting purposes in emails.
- Notify Skype of any illegal resellers or phishing activity by email.
7) Never reply to emails that incite urgency and provoke impulsive actions. Skype warns against emails stating, “Unless you click this link your Skype account will be disabled,” or “Your account has been compromised, click here to view details.”
8 ) Run an up-to-date antivirus program in the background and always scan any received files from both contacts and strangers. More computer safety pointers:
- Use a firewall to block unauthorized access when connected to the Internet.
– Install all of the latest security updates and patches on your computer.
– Use available privacy settings on Skype to set your preferences for receiving communications.
9) By default, Skype restricts the privacy settings of users under 16 years old to ensure maximum protection.
- Calls and chats are reserved to those on their contact list.
- The availability of date of birth, gender and age on their Skype profiles is limited.
- A warning message is displayed when kids receive an authorization request, which asks “Do you know this person? If not, please consider carefully whether you want them to contact.”
10) Never click on a link within a Skype message whether chat or email unless you have:
– Checked to ensure that URL is a legitimate site
– Verified the identity of the sender of the message
11) Consider using a parental control tool like Skypito to manage who your kids communicate with. Skypito requires parents to approve all of their child’s Skype contacts, and allows them to restrict calls and chat with strangers.
- For a more intensive guide that details how to configure privacy settings and defend against security and privacy risks, please visit Skype’s security section.