Spies R Us
The CIA is after my children.Internet filters have long targeted porn sites, and last year parents were offered the first Web software that keeps kids' computers from displaying hate sites. But who is protecting children from official government-run Web pages?Lurking among the 837,000 sites Yahoo provides for a search on "kid" -- right there among Furry Pants Productions, Crinkum Crankum, Squigly's Playhouse and Camp Wacki Kooki -- are the home pages of dozens of government agencies trying to whip up enthusiasm for the American way of life.Some are well-meaning but twisted, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency site hosted by a friendly tornado that asks each child to become a Disaster Action Kid. Others are just plain scary, like the Environmental Protection Agency's "Calculate Your Dose" button which offers kids the chance to add up the involuntary annual accumulation of radiation that comes from living in this wonderful country of ours.Some are simply insidious. The "Treasury's Page for Kids" has a "Lemonade Stand" button that goes directly to an explanation of the Simplified Tax and Wage Reporting System, complete with a feature called "Taxes Do What?"Still others disguise sexual predators. "The White House for Kids" site comes to mind.But the "CIA for Kids" site is just plain scary.Our little innocents are welcomed into the world of international espionage by a candy-colored couple of "Spyguys" -- a beaming, trench-coated man holding an owl with a camera embedded in its stomach and a beaming woman in an electric green pantsuit with her hand raised above a dog. Why these people are so happy abusing animals isn't apparent. But while kids are busy clicking on "CIA Canine Corps" and "Aerial Photography Pigeons," they may miss the most ominous part of the site."You are entering an Official United States Government System," the page warns. "The Government may monitor and audit the usage of this system, and all persons are hereby notified that use of this system constitutes consent to such monitoring and auditing." Why don't they just come out and say, "Hey kids, start your own personal file with us today!"The site features short bios of famous spies and spymasters, including a woman who spied on the British during the Revolutionary War but whose name still can't be revealed to the American public, according to the site. The CIA calls her "355." If I were a child who knew even a little bit about history -- say, that 1776 is more than 200 years ago -- such obsessive secrecy would scare the poop out of me.Happily, kids will be saved from this and most other government sites because they are just so darned boring. After "355," the CIA includes a few words from more recent spies like George Herbert Walker Bush. His brain-curdling verbiage is guaranteed to turn anyone away from a CIA career. "I have had the rare opportunity," he writes, "to serve on both sides of the coin in the intelligence cycle." As long as people like Bush manage to make spying sound as tedious as loose change clanking around a clothes dryer, CIA recruiters won't have a chance with my kids.Unfortunately for the youth of America, other sites that turn up under "kid" in a Yahoo search are neither as dull nor as obvious as the government."Mr. Bill's World" has nothing to do with the former Saturday Night Live clay character, for instance. "Mister Bill is a Christian children's artist," warns the site, too late to prevent a child from seeing it. As a disclaimer, this new Mr. Bill adds: "A lot of parents may remember watching this show (probably before they were Christians). Now don't get us wrong. Mr. Bill the clay star was not a bad guy. In fact, he's a good example of what can happen to people who don't have Jesus."Flashy corporate Websites are everywhere, but most kids learn commercialism from television early enough to see through those. Instead, we need a filter to screen children from cute spokescreatures for national trade associations."PearBear Joins the Pear Bureau to Help Kids Learn About Nutrition," the USA Pears site begins, innocently enough. But then things get dicey."PearBear is based on the real black-brown bears native to the American West," it continues, "which are sometimes found in the orchards where pears are grown. A kind, child-friendly, pear-loving character, PearBear roams the forests and fields with his friends." Encouraging my kids to be risk a mauling by a bear drunk on pear juice is unforgivable.Other sites claiming to be kid-friendly just encourage bad behavior. "Channel Six" is the home page for a band that puts out "ganster [sic] music for kids -- a 19-track trip into a crazy world where pre-teen hookers, chainsaw-wielding zombies and good ol' White Trash Mad Men spin the tales." How are our children going to learn to spell "gangster" with sites like this?There's probably no way to keep kids from dangerous sites on the Internet. I'll just have to start my own kids off at the FBI's kiddie Web page's "Safety Tips for Kids": "Remember," it says, "people online may not be who they seem."Come to think of it, I better check out those people at Furry Pants Productions.