Are anonymous proxies a cause for concern in UK schools?

Content Management

by Ben Sullivan| 17 January 2014

68% of education organisations face ongoing battle with proxies that allow students to bypass filtering controls.

Schoolchildren are bypassing internet controls by using anonymous proxies; pages which enable access to blocked websites.

This is according to a report issued by web content filtering firm Bloxx, that found that 68% of the UK's education organisations are struggling to lock down the use of these anonymous proxies.

With increasingly tech savvy schoolchildren, anonymous proxies were still found to be in use across education organisations, with one in three of those surveyed stating that their greatest concern was that by using anonymous proxies, students could be exposed to inappropriate content.

An Ofcom report also found that 18% of 12-15-year-olds know how to bypass internet filters, while almost 50% can delete their browsing history and 29% can amend settings to conceal their browser activity.

Another 83% of eight to 11 year-olds believed they could stay safe online.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller said: "Parents have a central role to play in protecting their children, including by talking to them about how to stay safe online."

Charles Sweeney, CEO of filtering software company Bloxx, said: "The web is amazing. It has the power to transform how our children interact with and learn about the world around them. But it also has a darker element and regardless of whether a child is five or 18, education organisations have a duty of care to protect students from inappropriate content."

However, journalist and web filtering expert Jane Fae told CBR that parents perhaps shouldn't be worried as much as some media outlets suggest.

"Over the past decade, the media has been awash with scare stories about what children are viewing on the internet, backed by a range of statistics...some from filtering software sales organisations based in the US. Someone really should have been asking who stood to gain from the internet panic," said Fae.

"However, recent surveys, including some large scale quantitative surveys run by the EU, suggest that exposure to inappropriate material on the internet has been falling, that most children are not especially worried by it, and that it is not very much worse than what young people were exposed to a generation ago through print and later video media."

But Sweeney argues that a lack of awareness amongst teaching staff is still a problem, regardless if there are filters in place in the home.

"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. In all matters relating to security, humans are often the weakest link."

One point worth noting is the analagy of the many-headed Hydra, unable to be killed before a new head sprouts. By creating more and more web filtering solutions, is the darknet being driven further underground and breeding new anonymous proxies, much faster than any filtering software can keep up with?

Fae believes so.

"The filtering story is playing out exactly as predicted, with over and under blocking and a significant boost to darknet technologies, including the use of anonymous proxies," she said. "When the history of the internet is written ten, twenty years from now it seems inevitable that the flight to untraceable technologies, begun with fears over state surveillance, will track to this decade.

"And it is equally likely that by giving young people a reason for avoiding the conventional internet, the UK government will discover in time it has achieved a remarkable result, leapfrogging the UK to first place, globally, in teaching its population how to avoid online detection."

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