If you've got a burning tech problem you want solved, please send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org, with "I've got a tech question!" as the subject line. (Your question may be edited.) You can also read previous "Dear Farhad" columns.
I don't think you should spy on your kids. But I'm not a parent, so what do I know? I may well change my tune in 15 years. By then I could probably get some kind of implantable chip to monitor my spawn's every fleeting thought. In the meantime, there are a few other ways to peer into your kid's digital life.
You could go low-tech: Spy on him through his friends. Even if your progeny is savvy enough to have blocked you from his Facebook account, some of his friends might not take privacy as seriously (or they may not understand how porous Facebook's default privacy settings can be). While you could glean valuable intel from what his peers are posting to the site, I'd advise against going so far as "friending" your kid's friends. While this seems to be a hot topic of debate among tech-age parents, it strikes me as a bit too creepy and stalkerish to consider. Your kid will also surely figure out what you've been up to.
Speaking of creepy, if your child does grant you access to his profile (and surveys suggest that many kids do), don't wear out your welcome. Don't wish him good luck on that Spanish test, don't tag him in baby pictures, and don't step in to congratulate him when he changes his status to "In a relationship." Also, you might want to consider restricting parts of your own profile from your children. Do you want your kids to see those pictures of you streaking across the quad your freshman year? If not, go to your privacy settings and hide "Photos and videos I'm tagged in" from your kids.
Finally, there is a high-tech way to find out what your kids are doing on their computers: Install spy software. These programs track keystrokes, network traffic, and other data on the PC and then report back to you. I haven't used any of these programs, and I wouldn't recommend you do, either. They represent a profound violation of your kid's privacy (not to mention that of everyone else who uses the computer, including your spouse), and if you have to resort to such measures, you probably need more than tech advice. Also, if your kid finds out, he'll probably just go to another computer or to a smartphone that isn't vulnerable to such software. And then you'll be blocked for good.
I've had three hard-drive failures in 12 months, and each time I've lost my music, movies, and photos. I've got about 150 GB of data. What is the least fussy, cheapest, and most foolproof home strategy to stop this from happening?
I feel for you; I, too, used to be a backup slacker. I didn't have a great reason other than laziness—most of the backup tools I looked up required too much work. But as I wrote in my review of backup tools in 2008, there are now plenty of easy ways to safeguard your data. No more excuses!
The first option: Buy an external hard drive. These are quite inexpensive (you could get a 1 TB drive, which would house all your data with plenty room to spare, for about $90), and they usually come with backup software (the software usually isn't great, but it works). Another option is to store your data with an online backup company—my favorite is Mozy, which lets you back up 2 GB for free or an unlimited amount of data on a single computer for $55 a year. Mozy works automatically, silently, in the background: It mirrors all your data to the company's servers. In the event of a disaster at home, your data remain unharmed.