School Internet Safety
By: Kent Cabreira
Less than a generation ago, classroom research required trips to the school or public libraries. Time pouring through books, encyclopedias, and journals was necessary to have not only a complete bibliography, but also a well-written report on the subject. Today, all that content, plus blogs, videos, e-books, and even textbooks not only fit in the palm of the hand, but also are more readily accessible to younger minds.
However, with that comes access to even more content that shouldn’t be accessible—all at a click of a mouse, or tap of a finger. Subject matter that would not even be spoken of in mixed company in the past is now available on any digital device, at any location, with little restriction. What are schools to do? How do we keep our students safe?
Initial attempts were to only allow a few students to use a computer—in the classroom, facing the teacher, and only after regular classroom work was completed. Lab computers became accessible, and now Acceptable Use Policies (or contracts) were necessary. These contracts should preferably be signed by both students and parents, and contain enforceable disciplinary actions. Today, students are walking into the classroom with self-owned technology in their hands that is more powerful than many schools can provide for the student to use.
How do schools prevent the use of peer-to-peer file sharing, illegal music downloads, adult content, or any other inappropriate audio, video, or text-based content? The answer is Internet content filters. Software or online-based filters are extremely affordable, but are often very slow and offer poor management or configurable options. Hardware-based filters are typically costly and require significant network management knowledge. Either method sounds like the epitome of protection; however, it must be noted that content filters cannot replace the necessity of physically monitoring student use or the need to have signed use policies/contracts.
When schools first introduce a content filter, there is usually an outcry regarding the limitation of access to content and the difficulty for the adult staff to provide content to students, do research, or conduct business. A multi-level filtering appliance can provide the mandatory protection for the students, allow additional content for staff use, and yet provide liability protection for all those involved—keeping the entire school safe from the potential allegations of anyone accessing questionable content. The appliance can even provide whitelisting for additional protection for the very young, or possibly a disciplinary measure for older students—while still allowing access to content for learning needs.
The question inevitably arises regarding the appliance blocking access to “good” content. Again, a proper appliance will provide not only blacklist filtering (blocking access at the domain-level for yahoo.com, facebook.com, etc.), but also parsing (searching for specific words on the page to be banned) and context filtering (allowing information for “chicken breasts,” but blocking “naked breasts”). Customized control is available on multi-filtering appliances by adjusting the sensitivity level of the context filtering—higher sensitivity for student filters, less sensitivity for staff filters.
But what should be done about videos—now a mainstay in the educator’s arsenal of supplemental teaching materials? Filtering videos is a difficult task. Without text provided to accurately describe the content of the video, filtering appliances have nothing else to use. Technology is available to “detect skin tones” to help limit adult content—but what about other subject matter that may be deemed inappropriate? This usually comes down to an all-or-nothing scenario—either the entire site is allowed or the entire site is blocked. Google’s recent introduction of YouTube for Schools has made a significant contribution to assist schools in providing content to both students and teachers, while adding the protection of blocking the rest of YouTube. With the help of a filtering appliance that automatically redirects the URL, students can only watch videos that have been authorized by teachers.
Finally, proper appliances should also filter portable equipment that students and staff may bring to school. If wireless access is provided for these users to access the school’s network, a filtering appliance with advanced authentication methods can provide filtering for these users as well. Any devices that belong to the school—tied in to the server (domain controller)—can be recognized using advanced authentication methods. Non-domain devices (smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc.) will fallback to an alternate authentication method that is similar to that used in hotels or guest hotspots. Regardless of authentication method, all users can be assigned to different filters on the appliance—providing that very important liability protection.
With the recent fourth-generation release of the ComSifter® Internet content filter product family, Comsift, Inc. is able to provide schools with all of the features mentioned in this article. Additional features to help protect your students and staff can be found on Comsift’s website: www.comsift.com. Call 866-875-1254 x705 for academic pricing.