Content filtering K-12 industry trends: Less is more?

For years now, the web content filter industry has been challenging.  It has been challenged by the ever-changing nature of what is offered by the Internet and by requirements imposed by Internet companies.  Virtual IPs, Web 2.0, CDNs, social media, website encryption…over time, all these things have challenged the way web filters perform their task.  New releases of Internet apps as well as new requirements, like SSL encryption, quickly render web filters less effective.  So there is a race to be able to keep up and offer effective filtering.  
One large challenge for web filters has been to effectively decrypt SSL-encrypted websites in order to be able to identify which content to allow, and which content to block.  If that’s not challenging enough, add the requirement to do it at scale and you have a tall order to fill.  Offering SSL decryption-based web filtering at multi-gigabit speeds is not something most filters can do.  This has been a big complaint by web filter customers, especially in the K-12 education space.  The filter industry’s response has been to attempt to scale up with effective decryption. This is much more easy to write about than it is to accomplish.  
Most recently, some vendors’ response has been to change the narrative away from scalable SSL decryption, and instead focus on deployment options.  And so, with the popularity of the cloud, vendors have distracted customers from the key requirement of having control, to making deployment easier. Sounds enticing.  After all, web filtering, while a requirement, isn’t always the most exciting topic for IT. The truth is the majority of cloud solutions for schools require end-point clients to perform effective filtering.
But what about the reason to filter in the first place, while allowing important K-12 educational content?  And, what about BYOD devices that won’t have clients loaded on them?  Aren’t they just as important as school-issued devices?  Isn’t capturing searches on suicide, or bullying just as critical if those searches happen on a device a student brings from home?  Deployment suddenly seems a lot less heavily weighted when the core objectives aren’t being met.  
Moving to a cloud web filter will likely not provide the control and visibility required by K-12. For that reason, the new cloud-based filters feel like a bait and switch.  A new exciting story, but with less of the functionality you approached filter vendors for in the first place.  

On-premise filtering with the core capabilities of SSL decryption and reliable user identification continues to be the benchmark for effective K-12 Internet control.


About the Author: Paul Hafen is an 18-year veteran in the Cybersecurity field.  He’s co-founder of a security firm and has worked with hundreds of organizations on security projects. A blogger with an emphasis on malware and data loss topics, he researches and reports on the latest vulnerabilities and attacks for ContentKeeper.