How do you strike a balance between protecting users whilst enabling them to work effectively online?
Nowadays, more of our lives are conducted online, including access to educational resources and research data. Choosing the appropriate protection for your organisation, and its users, is therefore increasingly important – and can be hugely complicated for colleges and universities tasked with protecting students, researchers and staff without hampering academic freedom.
There’s a risk that if we make broad-brush restrictions, we can hinder genuine research efforts. For example, if an art student is searching for still life images online, should they be prevented from viewing them, or is access a critical part of their studies? And to what level? Similar issues exist for online education and support in areas such as health, sex education and religion.
But there is a need to protect students, not least through the requirements of Prevent - which forms part of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy - by safeguarding potentially vulnerable users from accessing radical or extremist content on the web. UK universities and colleges have a duty under Prevent (explained in more detail in this blog post by Matt Dean from the Association of Colleges). They need to ensure their IT policy incorporates appropriate measures to support acceptable use, and consider backing this up through the use of web filtering and monitoring.
It’s a complicated issue, so here we look at what web filtering and monitoring are, why you need them, and how you go about getting them sorted for your organisation.
What can web filtering and monitoring do for you?
Simply put, web filtering is about making the web appropriate for your organisation. It makes sure that students can access material online that is appropriate to their context.
Many people immediately conjure up images of controls and blocking when they think about web filtering, monitoring and recording – but in practice, it’s often more subtle than that. You can filter web addresses for specific groups or individuals at particularly times of the day so only authorised users have access to the content they need.
Filtering offers layers of protection, and monitoring allows an institution to take appropriate action at a number of possible points. For example, monitoring can help distinguish between someone stumbling upon an inappropriate site and someone returning to that site for long periods at a time. Or, to take the example we used earlier, between a fine art student researching life model images and a student in an unrelated field accessing indecent material.
Depending on the approach you and your institution take, you can opt to ‘block and protect’ more, investing resources in prohibiting access, or you can choose to intervene when the evidence web monitoring provides suggests this is necessary.
Web filtering will prevent accidental access to harmful or inappropriate materials. It won’t stop people from deliberately accessing things they shouldn’t – and if someone is deliberately avoiding filtering then they’re most likely smart enough to avoid any monitoring you have set up as well. But monitoring can still help you to identify online activity that might need your attention (for example, patterns where users are actively seeking suspect content).
When it’s up and running, web filtering makes your network safer in general, potentially preventing accidental exposure to web-borne malware and viruses; having these blocked by a web filter, rather than leaving it to individual users, who might in error open a scam email, or introduce a virus in another way.
If you were to go a step further and take the time and effort to tune a set of filters and monitoring specifically to your needs, there are further benefits to be had, such as increased confidence that you have a robust, fit-for-purpose solution. Doing so should also save you money – creating a system that is fully aligned to your institution so that there’s less risk that things will go wrong and you’ll be exposed, and have to make unplanned expenditure to address unexpected problems.
Solutions to support you
Web filtering and monitoring is a complex task, and that means there is no one-size-fits-all, single solution.
To help you, we offer a range of solutions including advice and guidance, training to help you make appropriate and effective choices that back up your security policies, an enhanced web filtering service and a new web filtering and monitoring framework agreement, where you can chose the level and type of protection you want, without having to go through lengthy procurements.