Schools are learning to better negotiate the Internet’s fine line between learning and trouble.
For eight years, the federal government has required any schools getting E-Rate funds to use Internet filters to protect students online.
The concept is easy to grasp: An Internet filtering appliance plugs into a school’s network at the gateway to the Internet, monitoring which sites users access. The district administrator decides which categories and sites to block; the appliance then puts every request through this checklist before allowing access.
But nothing is easy in today’s Web 2.0 world. Sites that can be tremendous boons to education, such as online video sites or even social networking pages, can also be black holes that eat up hours of student time unproductively. So the challenge today is to offer flexible plans that allow education, keep students safe and eliminate time-wasting sites.
Security and Productivity
While the concept may sound simple, when your district has 16,000 Internet hits a second, like Dwayne Alton’s does, things can get complicated in a hurry. Alton is the director of information technology support at the School District of Lee County, based in Fort Myers, Fla. Lee County includes more than 100 schools and 83,000 students, so you can bet if something’s possible, it’s happened here.
Since 2000, any schools that use E-Rate funds have to follow the federal government’s Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires schools to block access to “offensive content” on their computers.
Alton went shopping for a new filtering company when students continually used anonymous proxy servers to sidestep the district’s network rules. He chose 8e6 Technologies’ solution and praises the software’s advanced reporting features. A “garden variety” pornography attempt will trigger an alert at the school of the user, while an attempt to access child pornography would alert Alton’s office and allow him to contact law enforcement immediately.
Sometimes this type of notice is used less to punish than to aid a student, Alton adds. When a female student tried to access sites about sexual abuse, the school was able to intercede and determine that she had been sexually abused, but hadn’t even let her parents know. Officials were able to quickly connect her with professional counseling, Alton adds.
These reporting features also make it easier for Alton to run his department. With Florida facing hard economic times, and Lee County no exception, Alton says he doesn’t have the staff to pore over the details of Internet usage to assure students are safe.
“We’re always struggling to find the right balance,” Alton says, referring to what to block and what to allow. “Filtering is just one tool. Our rule of thumb is that we block sites for inappropriate content, security risks and sites that hog bandwidth.”
For Duval County Public Schools, a Jacksonville, Fla., district with close to 135,000 students and 165 schools, Internet filtering became an important part of the equation as soon as the district made Internet access available for all students, about a dozen years ago.
At the time, the biggest concern was safety — keeping kids away from spam, malware, porn and other malicious content. But over the past few years, as social networking has become increasingly popular, priorities have shifted. Today, it’s as much or more about keeping students productive as it is about keeping them safe.
“The biggest things today are sites like YouTube, all of the dynamic content being put up on blogs, the posting of pictures on websites like Photobucket, and social networking sites. All of them lead to students being off task or doing inappropriate things,” says James Culbert, an information security analyst in the Duval County Public Schools’ technology division.
Take, for example, the case where an Omaha, Neb., school found a student who had asked a friend to videotape him beating up another child so they could post it online. Situations like these led the district to block student access to video-sharing sites, while allowing access to teachers and staff members.
Duval County Schools uses the R3000 Internet Filter from 8e6 Technologies, along with the company’s Enterprise Reporter, both connected via Ethernet to the Internet. The R3000 Internet Filter offers more than 90 categories and millions of websites, updated by human reviewers, with daily updates to customers.
The school system decided last year to require that every student, teacher and administrator be authenticated on the network. “That way, they know when they go online that everything they do is being monitored and recorded under their name,” Culbert explains. “So if they try to go to [an inappropriate site], the block page comes up with their name on it, which means a lot more than something anonymous. That has made a huge difference in where they have been visiting.”
This information is important in the next part of the process: reporting. Duval uses 8e6’s Enterprise Reporter, which works in concert with the R3000 to provide customizable reports on Internet use by user, along with historical trending. All reports allow administrators to drill down for more specific information.
Culbert receives a daily report from the system, along with a weekly report each Monday. Based on those reports, Culbert visits a middle school or high school every month and talks to students who have been abusing the system. The students are sometimes suspended and sent home, which communicates a message to the entire school.
But students aren’t the only user group being monitored. The system also monitors teachers to look for inappropriate activity. And it works; the system has caught staff members and teachers accessing inappropriate websites during the workday.
Eventually, Culbert is looking at adding 8e6’s Threat Analysis Reporter to the mix, which provides real-time granular reporting, with graphical snapshots of Internet traffic and tools to identify and control user-generated web threats.
“It tracks students’ activities and assigns points to them, so if they spend too much time in a particular site or category, like Cartoon Network, it may kick them out of that category,” he explains. “Or if it sees a student trying to access an inappropriate website, it could lock him or her out of the Internet completely for 30 minutes.”
Schools’ Top Internet Threats
- Web Proxies Students use these to bypass school content filters and deliberately access inappropriate content.
- Social Networking The prevalence of these sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, can waste students’ time during school or be used for online bullying.
- Personal Information Teens are more likely to post a cell phone number or personal photos or videos online, which can be dangerous.
- Blind Communication Teens can receive personal messages online from people they don’t know, and often the teens do not tell a trusted adult. They sometimes reply and chat with those strangers.
- Viruses and Spyware Besides hogging Internet access, downloading music and videos is frequently a copyright issue and can open a computer and network to both viruses and spyware.
- Spam Spam and malicious content can bypass security measures to infiltrate systems.
- Hackers Unauthorized users can enter the system to collect personal information about staff or students.
- Dangerous Content Users can access websites that could lead to criminal intent, such as a site that explains how to make a bomb.
Filtering and Security Solutions
Websense Web Filtering: Helps schools filter out inappropriate content while allowing relevant information to reach students. Offers flexible policy settings and helps compliance with federal laws.
Websense Hosted Web Security: Provides centralized web malware protection and granular web filtering in a hosted model.
ISS Orange Web Filter: Designed to work with Kerio WinRoute Firewall 6, ISS Orange Web Filter offers comprehensive web blocking and filtering, antivirus control and forced firewall login. Secure Web SmartFilter: This product, formerly from Web Washer and now from Secure Computing, controls inappropriate Internet use through reputation-based filtering. Secure Web Smart Reporter provides real-time snapshots of Internet traffic and reports for regulatory compliance.
Content Protect Educational Filtering: Features include Safe Search integration with popular search engines, remote management and reporting and custom browsing profiles. Blocks pornography, hate sites, chat rooms, online game and gambling sites, Usenet, peer-to-peer downloading networks, instant messages, forums and e-mail. SonicWall Content Filtering Service (CFS) and SonicWall Content Security Manager (CSM): Both filtering solutions feature a constantly updated database of categorized websites, onboard rating systems, and the ability to set controls for the use of IM and P2P applications. CFS is for small and midsize schools and districts, while CSM is an appliance-based gateway security and content filtering solution.
St. Bernard iPrism Web Filter: Originally designed for schools, iPrism Web Filter offers a multilayered approach to Internet access, protecting from malware, spyware, IM, P2P and inappropriate content while helping enforce acceptable use and security policies and facilitating CIPA compliance.
eSafe Secure Web Gateway: From Aladdin Knowledge Systems, eSafe provides thorough web browsing security with real-time inspection of web content and URL filtering. Also blocks script viruses and exploits, as well as known HTML and HTTP exploits.
Panda GateDefender Performa and Integra: Panda GateDefender Perform is a dedicated perimeter security device that protects against content-based threats in the gateway, including malware, spam and other undesirable content. Panda GateDefender Integra is installed between the Internet and the network, providing both proactive and reactive gateway security.