The internet is an incredible research tool. It can expand the sphere of available knowledge – facts, figures, places and people – an almost infinite amount. It provides immediate access to a store of information whose size is impossible to comprehend, an encyclopaedia which is completely unfathomable in scope and depth.
For the most part, the internet helps to provide education and understanding to those who would normally not have that luxury – those of low income, poor research skills and those with a lack of access to proper resources. It also gives people who lack specific skills the opportunity to quickly solve hard problems and allows them to benefit from the work of other people.
There is a part of the internet which does not factor into this view though. A significant portion of content on the internet is designed for distraction, the spreading of false information and the manipulation of users. Sometimes it can be very hard to distinguish one from the other.
Schools and other learning-focused establishments must give young people access to the best elements of the internet, and limit the accessibility of content which can negatively impact their education. This has to be done without removing access to new research tools, unrefined sources and even via routes which may be less than totally safe.
This is done not only because it makes sense from an academic point of view, but because a solid grounding of ethics and a desire for better internet practices is a requirement to live well within modern Western culture. Educational establishments, on the whole, work to send out young people into the world with an idea of how to act in the best interests of everyone – not just themselves – which certainly means learning and training in the practices which are acceptable and appreciated within the wider community – typically within the world of work.
While in the past providing an ethical approach to livelihood have only been a secondary role, the capacity for people to make the right decisions online is now a key factor for individuals and predicting their future. Hacking and online manipulation are fast becoming not just civil offences but highly illegal, therefore schools and educational institutions have a real responsibility to curb this behavioral trend where necessary.
This task is made all the more difficult by the fact that children and young people generally have a natural tendency to test the limits of their own knowledge and capability, as well as the limits of any software which is designed to increase internet security. In other words, any internet security tool which is implemented in schools needs to be exceptionally good at allowing access to the correct knowledge, while halting dangerous behaviour and even highlighting trends which may underline real issues for the real-world benefit of their students.
The Youth of Today
One of the issues facing education technology today is the problem of children and young people knowing a fair amount about computers, networks, software and workarounds. In essence, their access to greater knowledge on these subjects (via the internet) gives them the capacity to find weaknesses and exploit them as required. In most cases this does not apply to all individuals, and certainly not all children, but it greatly increases the difficulty in halting determined young people from using sneaky tactics to reach gaming, video streaming and social media websites.
Unlike middle-age luddites who often use technology sparingly – young people today have always been immersed in technology: They know how it works, almost by second nature, and have developed a multitude of ways which can be used to achieve their goals. These goals should be understood, and the appropriate measures put in place, to limit the negative impact that these methods can have on education.
Below are some key techniques used to exploit or circumvent internet security measures.
The Problem of Proxies
A proxy server or ‘Application Gateway’ allows access to the internet through an application or directly via a server – the proxy is a secured and encrypted (HTTPS) pathway which can be difficult to block unless the IP is banned directly. Originally proxies were designed to improve speed and enhance security by leveraging faster resources from a secondary source (which was running enterprise software and better hardware).
Today, with higher bandwidths over the internet and generally faster resources on local machines proxies are no longer used for these purposes. Instead they are primarily used to bypass a firewall which is setup to stop information from large networks (such as the internet) reaching smaller networks (such as a school).
Proxies also also make it harder to trace the original location of the user, especially if multiple proxies are used. Hackers often use proxies to protect themselves – routing through servers based in different countries.
Other methods for bypassing security features commonly used by students include…
Using IP Addresses. Using IP Addresses instead of web addresses (a web address such as www.google.com actually connects to 18.104.22.168). Most firewalls actively block web addresses and not IP addresses individually.
Disabling Internet Filters. There are often backdoors built into filtering software that allow administrators to limit access depending on who they want to have it. If the user is skilled they may be able to research known ways to simply disable the filters or access the settings panel and change their enabled user policies.
Bypassing Browser Blocking. Some methods of protection are cheaper than others. One of the most cost effective is limiting web content through a browser. If a user can access another browser they can bypass the security entirely.
Guessing Passwords. Unfortunately many people have extremely easy passwords – this commonly includes Password123, 123456, qwerty and 111111. If a student gains access to an admin password they have free reign to change policies, bypass the firewall and add or remove specific IP’s (which can then be accessed without anyone knowing).
Breaking Out The Mobile. Halting students using their own mobile devices, along with using their own data, is a constant challenge facing schools. Various apps exist to bypass security including Ultrasurf. The time where stopping students using mobile devices entirely is long since passed and each institution often has their own way of managing mobile devices – some more effective than others.
Using A Media Console. Various media players such as Playstation, Xbox and Freeview players have the ability to browse the internet and often bypass local firewalls. While this is unlikely to disrupt classes it may well be a security risk if unchecked.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
The key problem with internet security is escalation.
If schools put in security, students will go to greater lengths to circumvent it. It may well be the case that adding extreme security measures may well actually introduce more risk than only putting basic measures in place.
The key element to remember is that the reason for internet filtering and monitoring is to help the user navigate away from poor (badly sourced and insecure) content and towards good (indepently verified and secure) content. Part of this strategy needs to include education on how to test sources and knowledge that schools are there to assist learning and not to allow negative activities.
The aim for schools and learning institutions is, and always should be, to create young allies who will uphold the ethical outlook and morals presented by the school. Social changes and focusing on good practices can have as much, if not more, of an impact as over-reaching security measures which often halt neutral or even good behaviours.
Core Principles of Internet Security for Education
- Ensure full awareness of internet security measures, clear guidelines for use and clear punishments for intentionally breaking rules.
- Create a set policy for mobile use. This may include a requirement for particular technology to monitor browsing while in school on all devices.
- Generally updating policies in reaction to exploits – guiding fair use policies and inputting the proper measures to make sure any interventions have the desired effect.
If clear boundaries are set from day one, students will not feel the need to test them. If schools work to enhance users online experience and show them benefits of internet skills rather than limiting access and forcing them to become rebellious then outcomes will not only be better, but radically better.
Employing a Guardian to Protect Students
Another tool for Education technology is a simple reporting and alerting module for individual negative behaviours. Our partners Smoothwall began a new journey five years ago to actively enhance knowledge about students and warn about particular trends rather than trying to constantly fighting fires.
They released a new tool called ‘Guardian’ which can be preconfigured to warn about persistent user misdemeanours and notable actions. This is in line with new safeguarding legislation which requires schools to report on potentially harmful radicalisation of students. This includes recording visits to sites which present wilfully malevolent misinformation to young people, with the aim of manipulating their behaviour.
Using Smoothwall, Schools can use powerful tools to prevent the elements discussed earlier from causing disruption while also working to monitor behaviour and highlighting individuals who may be showing signs of radicalisation, bullying or trying to view highly inappropriate content.
The Guardian tool is unique in that it works alongside flexible security measures to help spot outliers and guide their behaviour accordingly. Over ten years ago we chose to work with Smoothwall primarily because of their dedication to help businesses and educational facilities meet the challenges they face. All of the above security risks can be avoided completely through Smoothwall software, setup and managed properly by Kevin James Ltd.
For a demonstration or to learn more about Smoothwall and its features, why not give us a call on 01268 627101 or visit our web page www.kjltd.co.uk/portfolio/internet-filtering-web-monitoring – you can fill out the form there to apply for a real world demonstration.