While driving to work the other day, I heard a report about government employees who had been discovered using the Internet to view pornography at work. The outraged officials being interviewed yammered on about how this would be investigated, and they would get to the bottom of it. I shook my head and turned off the radio. Is Web-filtering software such a secret that people still don't know about it?
Perhaps I am in the minority, but I include Web-filtering software as a must-have application right along with virus protection for government organizations. Some people argue that it is not our job to filter the Internet—that we should rely on policies and procedures to prevent misuse of government property. I strongly disagree. Every time such a report makes the news, it is a black eye for government. And I, for one, think it is our job to help prevent these kinds of harmful stories from blotting the reputation of our organizations.
Head off embarrassing or litigious incidents
Policies and procedures are good for discipline after the fact, and may deter policy-conscious workers, but many need protection from themselves. My motto is, if you agree that some Web sites should be off-limits to employees and are willing to discipline them for breaking those rules—then don't let them do it!
Web-filtering software is one way of protecting the organization's users from straying into areas that are prohibited by policy anyway—kind of like an electric fence for the browser. Technically, Web-filtering software sits on a server on your network and all browser traffic destined for the Internet is routed to it and compared against a database (refreshed nightly, by subscription to the database service), which continually updates its list of restricted Web sites.
Some examples of applications in this category of software are:
These applications provide a variety of ways of filtering including white lists, black lists, choosing by category, by particular site, by keyword, as well as being able to exclude by group membership or individual. I've had experience with Websense and CyberPatrol, and I found them simple to use, flexible, and easy to implement given my organization's needs. Most importantly, it was easy to edit the white lists and black lists; you can add individual sites to the approved or blocked lists, according to your organization's needs.
I think that the most important thing Web-filtering software provides is limiting legal liability and proving due diligence in the case of harassment lawsuits. Should an incident occur, I would much rather be in the position of stating concretely, "We have strong controls in place to curtail such behavior; it is a clear violation of our policies and procedures; and the guilty parties will be disciplined," than some vague dodge about investigating and "getting to the bottom of it."
Other benefits of Web filtering
Besides preventing your Web-browsing users to go where they shouldn't, all the products above tout additional benefits of filtering. Some of these are:
- Increased bandwidth
- Greater employee productivity
- Enforcement of acceptable use policies
- Risk management.
All of these benefits are relative depending on what you choose to filter. Obviously one could be very strict and prevent almost all browsing that is non–work related, and thus increase bandwidth and productivity, but at the cost of some good will from the workforce. The IT governance bodies that I have been a part of when using these products focused exclusively on content that was strictly forbidden by the acceptable use policies that were in place. Therefore, the filters were set primarily to block pornography, hate material, graphic violence, and other forms of obscenity. In each case, the software was well-received by the organization and there were no protests over the action.
An important thing to note is that almost all these packages come with monitoring tools as well as filtering tools. Please be advised that while employing filtering tools work well in the realm of open records laws, monitoring tools can land you in a pot of hot water. Keeping logs of where the organization's employees are surfing may strike some as being a little bit too much of a Big Brother tactic. The monitoring and control tools are seductively powerful, but think hard about each additional feature that you implement beyond filtering.
Lastly, it really does pain me to hear about Internet misuse by government employees when we have such relatively cheap and easy ways of stopping most of it. I may be old-fashioned, but I still believe that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you aren't employing some sort of filtering, please consider it. You will be glad that you did.
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