The NSW Department of Education has refuted allegations that its Internet filter slipped up last month but has admitted that the system is not fail-proof.
The net filter was put under the spotlight late last month after reports surfaced that the system was blocking access to some educational and government sites including NSW Education Minister, Verity Firth’s own online portal. There were also claims that students were able to view inappropriate content despite the clean-feed system in place.
Distributed by the Department of Education, a school filtering service has been in place since 1996. Its latest form comes in McAfee’s SmartFilter XL with TrustedSource Web Database. As a reputation-based product, it uses a database of filter categories in which websites are assigned to depending on their content. Categories are allowed or blocked for staff and students relevant educational institutions depending on scholastic level. Uncategorised sites are blocked automatically.
The Internet filter is co-managed by McAfee and the Department’s Web Filter Unit which is run by teaching staff from across the board. Requests to block or grant access to various uncategorised Web pages go through the government division. If a site needs to be blocked or allowed urgently under special circumstances, the unit can assign it to a DET custom category.
The Department denied that the filter failed in its protection and maintains the processes currently in place are effective. While it conceded that no Internet filter system is flawless, the DET said every effort is made to minimise the risk of students being exposed to improper material.
According to a spokesperson for the NSW DET, last month's debacle involved an individual student gaining access to a chat session that contained inappropriate language but not images. As for the innocuous web pages in question, they were blocked due their uncategorised status and Senator Firth’s page fell into that group due to the site’s lack of content.
McAfee was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.
While the fixed Web filter does not apply outside of the Department’s premises, the 220,000 Lenovo notebooks that are to be deployed to years 9-12 students under the NSW Digital Education program will use a licensed Blue Coat Systems clean-feed solution. The NSW DET manages that particular filter alone.