Anonymous proxies: do you know your stuff?

Charles Sweeney

Charles took a first class honours in Computing Science from Glasgow University in 1985.  His initial career was spent in software development and consultancy with Burroughs Machines, The Turing Institute and Unisys. Charles has worked with a number of successfulhigh-growth SMEs across a variety of sectors including medical devices, animal health and software development.  He has been CEO of Web filtering and security specialists Bloxx since 2012.

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When you’re in school, you want to defy boundaries, but those boundaries are generally put in place by school staff who know better. Policing how pupils use the internet without stifling their education can be difficult. On top of this, students can easily use proxies to access any site they wish, as Bloxx CEO Charles Sweeney points out.

The education sector has been quick to realise the potential of the Internet as a valuable and collaborative teaching aid. Certainly, the ability to interact with dynamic applications, collaborate with students from around the world and have guest speakers beamed into your classroom via video conferencing has changed education as we know it.

This can only be viewed as a good thing. Broadening children's horizons is key to developing a generation that will keep the UK at the forefront of economic developments, generate new business ideas that create jobs and nurture the talent that leads foreign companies to invest in Britain. But it also brings with it inherent security risks, and schools have a duty of care to protect children from any inappropriate or offensive online content. The ramifications of a five year old being exposed to inappropriate content over the school network has serious ramifications for the school.

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.

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