Schools battle anonymous proxies as pupils find ways around filtering

Web filtering under strain as proxies multiply

Many schools are dedicating valuable IT resources to countering the anonymous proxies that have become a popular way to evade web content filtering systems, a survey of UK and US institutions has found.

Carried out for filtering firm Bloxx in 200 schools with pupils between the ages of 5 and 18, two thirds of IT staff said they had an issue with proxies, with 13 percent believing it had become a serious or very serious problem.

Around 20 percent said the problem had got worse compared to a year ago with the same number saying they now spent more time on the issue than before.

In 95 percent of cases, the time consumed by proxies was two hours or less per week.

Proxies are servers which act as innocent staging posts for people to visit blocked websites or content types. They aren't hard to find and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that they have been widely used in schools and universities to bypass filtering for some time.

The most common reasons for using them in the UK or US would be to visit file sharing P2P sites or to view porn but in other countries they are used to get round content censorship.

Filtering lists circulate to block the proxies but it is almost impossible to keep them up to date. Increasingly, proxies are bundled as a service whereby a client connects to a list of ever-changing proxies.

The main concern expressed by 38 percent of respondents was that proxies were a distraction that sapped time spent on education with 30 percent worried about access to "inappropriate content," a catch-all euphemism for pornographic or extreme content of various types. Slightly fewer were worried about general security threats such as malware.

It's not entirely clear whether some schools even bother to actively manage proxies so the problem could be understated. A key issue is how long it takes staff to block new proxies with the commonest answer being a matter of hours. That left a third taking up to a week to achieve the same result.

There seems to be plenty of ignorance with respondents saying that only one in ten non-IT staff had a clue what they were.

"This [web filtering] is no easy task as every day thousands of new anonymous proxies are launched, leaving schools, colleges and their students susceptible," commented Bloxx CEO, Charles Sweeney.

"A lack of awareness amongst teaching staff is a cause for serious concern. If teachers and lecturers don't understand the risks then they could be unwittingly exacerbating the situation and failing to protect students from a whole host of online nasties," he said.

Exactly the same issue confronts ISPs required to filtering content under the UK Government's 'pornwall' scheme to require broadband subscribers to opt in to receive certain kinds of content.

The idea has been heavily criticised on a number of counts, including inadvertent censorship of legitimate websites, but others question whether it will even work.

Using proxies is getting easier and easier; last month a Chrome filter called 'Go Away Cameron' (GAC) designed to bypass the UK ISP restrictions received plenty of free publicity. There are many other tools like it.

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