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Hands On

For testing purposes, I set up multiple profiles. I created a "Kid" profile, a "Teen" profile and two "Adult" profiles. The rest of the devices on my network were either in the "Home" profile or were unmanaged. I did most of my testing using the Kid profile, since it was the one with the most restrictions. However, I used the "Sue" user profile with Teen filtering for most of the afternoon and didn't really run into restrictions unless I specifically went to sites that were excluded in the Teen Filter Levels.

The screenshot below shows the landing page for the application. It also shows one of the problems with the product. As you set up a profile, you can associate a photo from either the camera or from your iOS device's camera roll. I decided to use photos from my camera roll. Unfortunately, the resize/reposition feature didn't appear to work and what appears in the "circle" icon for each user was a portion of the selected photo from the upper left corner.

If you leave the image blank, it uses the first letter of the profile name. If you take a photo using the camera on your iOS device, however, the image appears properly as long as you've centered it when you take the photo. I contacted Circle Technical Support and they confirmed the bug and reported it to their development team.

Each user profile is arranged in, yup, you guessed it, a circle that surrounds the Home profile icon. The Menu icon in the upper left corner lets you add profiles, view / manage devices and perform administrative tasks such as rebooting, disabling and resetting the Circle. The icon in the upper right corner shows all devices on the network. The pause button at the bottom of the screen will temporarily block internet access for all managed devices. A similar pause button appears on each individual's profile page and on each device page.

Circle Landing Page

Circle Landing Page

When you press the Pause icon for a user profile, a specific device or the entire network, the user will see this message after their next browser request.

Circle - Paused screen
Circle - Paused screen

The composite screenshot below shows the top-level screen and the Insight for the "Kid" profile David. As you can see from the time stamp at the top of the screen, it's early in the morning and David has used no internet time today. Currently, David has one device assigned to him, the Filter level is set to "Kid" and Time Limits and BedTime is currently disabled. Clicking on any menu item lets you edit the current settings.

Circle - Profile landing and Insight pages for "Kid"

Circle - Profile landing and Insight pages for "Kid"

The image on the right shows the detail for the Insights menu. The Circle lets you view usage for either today or yesterday. In addition, you can view totals for the day, week or month. Time is totaled by category. I'm not sure how the total time is calculated, however. Yesterday, "David" spent three hours on the Internet, but the sum of the categories appears to add up to more than three hours. The discrepancy may be due to how Circle aggregates time for web sessions. Actually, yesterday, I had enforced a three-hour time limit on "David" and when the limit was reached, he was notified and Internet access was terminated.

It's important to note that you can assign more than one device to a user profile. In some of my testing, I had multiple devices assigned to the "David" profile. Usage for both devices was aggregated and shown in the Insights summary. However, usage between multiple devices was not broken out separately.

Enforcement

Of course, the whole idea behind Circle is to manage the devices and enforce the policies that you've created for your family. To test this, I tried accessing sites using various profiles, and also checked enforcement of time limits and bedtime hours. To test, I used both a desktop computer using Chrome as well as a Samsung Android tablet. For some sites, I tested both the browser version and corresponding app on the tablet. The table below summarizes the results for the "Kid" profile - the most restrictive filter that I set up.

App/Category Test search Allowed Result - Samsung Tablet Result - Desktop Notes - Tablet Notes - Desktop
Amazon - browser www.amaon.com n filtered page filtered page    
Business (linked in) www.linkedin.com n filtered page filtered page    
Disney www.disney.com y allowed allowed    
Email www.gmail.com n blocked filtered page Certificate error Certificate Error
Email www.mail.yahoo.com n blocked blocked Certificate error Certificate Error
Facebook app N/A n blocked N/A can't connect N/A
Facebook web www.facebook.com n blocked blocked Certificate Error Certificate Error
Government and Politics secaucusnj.gov n allowed allowed    
Government and Politics www.wh.com n blocked blocked Certificate Error Certificate Error
Government and Politics bluenationreview.com n filtered page filtered page    
Health www.webmd.com n filtered page filtered page    
Hulu - app N/A n blocked blocked SSL Error 143 N/A
Hulu - browser www.hulu.com n filtered page filtered page    
News www.abcnews.com n filtered page filtered page    
News www.yahoo.com n allowed allowed    
News www.msnbc.com n filtered page filtered page    
News - USATODAY app N/A n allowed N/A   N/A
News - USATODAY www.usatoday.com n filtered page filtered page    
News AOL browser www.aol.com n Allowed Allowed    
Nickelodeon www.nick.com n filtered page filtered page    
Photo images.google.com n allowed allowed    
Play Store N/A n blocked N/A check connection, try again N/A
Sports www.espn.com n filtered page filtered page    
YouTube App N/A n blocked N/A check network connection  
YouTube web www.youtube.com n filtered page blocked   Certificate error
             
Searches
creative arts watercolor painting n allowed allowed results shown, links worked results shown, links worked
Google Image Search boobs n allowed allowed found images found images
Google Search boobs n blocked blocked results shown, links blocked results shown, links blocked
issues + lifestyles (google search) LGBT n allowed/filtered blocked some links allowed - some got filter page results shown, links blocked
Table 1: Test results for user profile "David" using Kid level filtering

The "Allowed" column shows whether or not I expected the site/app to be blocked. The "filtered page" result indicates that the site was intercepted, and a Circle web page was displayed showing that the site had been filtered. The "filter page" displayed varies depending on the filter level. Each filter page is a customized page for the individual user and shows age-appropriate Disney content as well as usage statistics, time remaining statistics, and, if enabled, time remaining until bedtime.

Initially, I had some inconsistent results. Sites I expected to be blocked were not. I contacted Technical Support and they recommended rebooting both the router as well as the Circle device. This undoubtedly cleared the ARP cache in both devices. Following the reboot, in most cases, the sites were blocked as expected. There were exceptions, however.

For example, I had expected Yahoo and AOL to be blocked because their landing pages are primarily news portals. However, both sites were allowed. Similarly, I had expected images.google.com to be blocked because the Photo filter had been applied to the profile. By drilling down into the usage stats provided by Insight, I discovered that AOL, Yahoo and images.google.com were all permitted because they fell under the Search & Reference filter, which had been permitted by the profile. I disabled that category filter and retested, and those sites were blocked.

The composite screenshot below shows the Circle filtered pages shown for the "Kid" and "Teen" users. The filtered page, in addition to notifying the user that content is filtered, is also where the Disney content is displayed. The filtered page for each category includes an extensive scrollable list of age-appropriate Disney content. The Disney content actually is hosted at filter.meetcircle.com, so is frequently updated. But if you try to hit the filter.meetcircle.com/teen URL shown in the screenshot and don't have a Circle, you'll get a page telling you so. No free Disney content for you!

The filtered pages follow the user interface color scheme, using mustard yellow for "Kid" and orange for "Teen". The "Kid" profile includes time limits, BedTime countdown timer and Time online summary. The "Teen" profile doesn't have time or bedtime restrictions, but limits have been set for various apps.

Circle Filter Page for "Kid" and "Teen" users

Circle Filter Page for "Kid" and "Teen" users

Access to a number of sites was blocked, but the Circle filtered page didn't appear. Instead, Chrome intercepted the page and warned "Attackers might be trying to steal your information" or that there was an SSL error. In these cases, the browser had detected a certificate mismatch problem between the SSL certificate on the site and the Circle device.

The image below shows the error message on my desktop when I attempted to connect to Facebook with Chrome. Actually, that's good news, because it indicates that the browser had protected you from a suspected "man in the middle" attack. As noted in the introduction, ARP spoofing is how Circle works.

Chrome warning about a certificate problem

Chrome warning about a certificate problem

Outlook on my desktop also complained about the SSL certificate mismatch that allowed me to check out the suspect certificate. Here's what it showed:

Outlook Security Warning and Circle Certificate

Outlook Security Warning and Circle Certificate

Circle enforced both the daily and BedTime limits set. Notification is done via a simple filter page shown below.

Circle Time Limit and BedTime Enforcement

Circle Time Limit and BedTime Enforcement

Closing Thoughts

At first, I was a bit skeptical about installing an ARP-spoofing device on my network. But it appeared to make the discovery and setup of Circle very easy. No network expertise was required beyond connecting Circle to my Wi-Fi network, entering a password and following the steps in the setup wizard.

I was a bit disappointed that I couldn't use my Camera Roll photos for profile icons, but I'm sure that's a bug Circle will quickly eradicate. I was also a bit concerned that the total time shown in the Insight summary didn't seem to sum up to the total allowed time. That's something that still seems to need a bit of work. But the product was effective in blocking applications and categories - once I understood what was included in the filter categories.

Other software parental control applications are able to more granularly control content, but they require installation on each device. And, they aren't centrally managed, nor do they all work across the spectrum of computing devices families are likely to use. Since Circle operates at Layer 2, it's compatible with virtually all devices. One shortcoming noted is that Circle does not log failed (blocked) access attempts. Sometimes knowing what your child is trying to access is more valuable than knowing what they did access.

5/13/16 update

A helpful reader pointed out that Circle does track visited and blocked websites.

Insights - Web History

Insights - Web History

Circle groups history into categories and then sites. You can view activity today, this week, this month. When you click on any of those, you can look at the previous one (so yesterday, last week and last month). You can also view visited and blocked sites.

Circle currently works on only a single local network segment because it relies on Layer 2 ARP protocol. In fact, the FAQs tell you not to attach Circle to your guest network, as devices on that network are the only ones that you'd be able to manage. But Circle is also promoting Circle Go, which will bring Circle's features to any network, including cellular networks. Circle Go will be a subscription product and come in the form of an iOS app "with Android support to follow". The product page says "Coming Spring", but doesn't say which year.

No one parental control tool for Internet access is perfect, just as no parental Internet policy is perfect. But this hardware-based easy-to-set up device provides a lot of control. And for $99, it's a good tool to have in your parental control toolbox. If you decide to buy Circle, I recommend you spend some time testing the profiles you set up for your children to ensure they are filtering content that's in line with your view of age-appropriateness.

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