To help mitigate these risks the vast majority schools have in place web-filtering technology that blocks access to certain sites. However, these tools all too often rely on database lists, rather than reacting in real-time to new developments on the web, a method that introduces vulnerabilities.
So it will probably come as no surprise that, more often than not, there are ways and means around the majority of these filters in the form of anonymous proxies. Proxies are sites that provide an easy way to bypass any filtering restrictions that have been put in place and once accessed allows students to visit any available website. They are so easy-to-create that many hundreds of new proxy sites are released every single day. Anonymous proxies are now so prolific that in a study we undertook earlier this year, 68% of education authorities stated that they faced an ongoing battle with them, and 14 per cent considered them to be a major problem.
The greatest concern was that by using anonymous proxies children would be able to view inappropriate content. Lost productivity and distraction were also key worries. Despite concerns about the vulnerabilities anonymous proxies introduce into the education environment, one in five organisations (21%) felt that their ability to manage anonymous proxies had deteriorated.
The results hinted that schools face being outfoxed by students. Or at the very least students have the means to outfox schools or education organisations. Especially as it took 68% of organisations a few hours to find and block anonymous proxies, 11% a day, 15% a few days and 6% a week or more. A few hours might not sound like much, but given that young people are involved and the nature of the content they might be accessing, even a couple of seconds is too long for students to be vulnerable.
This is serious stuff. And yet the research found extremely low levels of awareness amongst teaching staff about anonymous proxies, how they were used and the threats they posed. Just one in ten of respondents, which were predominantly from IT, felt that teaching staff fully understood what an anonymous proxy was and the potential risks. Almost a fifth stated that staff had no idea what they were and that only 43% had 'basic' knowledge of anonymous proxies and their implications.
This lack of awareness amongst teaching staff is a concern on two fronts, as staff could unwittingly be exacerbating the situation and failing to protect students. In all matters relating to security, humans are the weakest link, so schools need to educate staff in order to plug this knowledge gap in order and ensure that the teaching environment is a safe one. In the fight against anonymous proxies, and the darker forces of the Internet, knowledge really is power.