Kids bypass school internet security controls

The results of a survey of secondary school pupils released today have revealed widespread abuse of controls used to block access to inappropriate websites in schools.

The poll, posted on Facebook by internet security vendor SmoothWall, found almost half (49 per cent) of 13-17 year olds admitted to using illicit tools to access blocked websites in school.

Even more (55 per cent) also said they had seen someone accessing adult material on classroom computers, which the vendor said suggested that Britain's schools could be fundamentally failing parents when it comes to shielding their children from offensive or illegal content.

It also pointed to the widespread availability of free web tools to subvert security access controls on school PCs: a simple Google search for "unblock MySpace," for example, returns almost a million results, including over 70 videos on YouTube giving step-by-step instructions on how to unblock websites at school.

The firm also said the practice of bypassing web filters to access banned sites, or shadow surfing,' where illicit browsing is hidden behind legitimate-sounding web addresses, could also leave school IT networks vulnerable to penetration by malware.

Some software programs, like Ultrasurf and Tor, help hide illicit browsing by diverting web traffic into secure tunnels much like the ones used for online banking allowing for content to be encrypted and not monitored. But SonicWall said the tunnels they use also provide an ideal route for Trojans, worms and other web-based malware to penetrate school networks undetected. And the likes of Ultrasurf, for example, can be passed as a 100kb download on a USB key between pupil to pupil.

The vendor said it is working with some organisations to take a proactive approach to preventing proxy abuse. Haven Technology College in Lincolnshire uses its Guardian web filter to stop students using both web and software-based or secure' proxy tools like Ultrasurf.

Colin Woodcock, learning co-ordinator at Haven Technology College, said: "Students' knowledge and ability to circumvent web filters had recently become a major cause for concern and a significant barrier to learning. W e opted to install their web filter and we are now able to effectively police our internet provision."

SmoothWall product manager, Tom Newton, added: "IT should support education without undermining the efforts of teaching staff and to do this, administrators need the right tools for the job." He called for the government and newly formed UK Council for Child Internet Safety(UKCCIS) to recognise to raise awareness about shadow surfing in Britain's schools.

The government school's IT agency, Becta told IT PRO many steps to minimise the use of proxy sites had already been taken. "Solutions to this issue vary from supplier to supplier and range from a basic blacklisting of known proxies to a complete block on all associated HTTPS traffic," it stated.

However, it added that care should be taken to ensure a correct balance between effectively restricting access to these sites and over blocking of legitimate sites such as a school's web mail service or learning platform.

"The best defence against the use of proxy sites is to ensure that schools and local authorities are educated in how they are used, ensuring that appropriate acceptable use policies are in place and optimised to address their use/misuse," it said.

Miya Knights

A 25-year veteran enterprise technology expert, Miya Knights applies her deep understanding of technology gained through her journalism career to both her role as a consultant and as director at Retail Technology Magazine, which she helped shape over the past 17 years. Miya was educated at Oxford University, earning a master’s degree in English.

Her role as a journalist has seen her write for many of the leading technology publishers in the UK such as ITPro, TechWeekEurope, CIO UK, Computer Weekly, and also a number of national newspapers including The Times, Independent, and Financial Times.