Internet Filtering, Censorship, Surveillance and Stuff Like That

One of the many justifications used across the world by agencies, governments, regimes etc for spying on us and filtering internet feeds is that it actually protects us.    By that they generally mean by employing these tactics they are able to catch more terrorists, paedophiles and various nasty people using the internet for their naughtiness.  In fact in many sectors of society if you argue that the internet shouldn’t be monitored or filtered then you will often find yourself grouped with these unsavory characters. Now just to clarify I’m not talking about carefully targeted surveillance and filtering on suspects (fair enough on that) but the general broad monitoring and filtering on an entire population on the off chance of picking up something interesting !

The problem is that it’s utter rubbish for one very good reason – it simply doesn’t work.    It’s all very well a Government thinking that they can routinely pick up terrorists by swooping on a Facebook page – but in reality what sort of hardened operatives are they going to pick up?   One thing for sure they won’t be very clever – in fact you’ll probably pick up the likes of these two harmless muppets who tried to organise a riot on Facebook.   Their riot attracted no rioters and they were picked up and sentenced to four years (which will probably be reduced to 2 weeks on appeal).

Jordan Blackshaw, left, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan

Now to be honest I don’t know about you, but I might be prepared to concede a large part of my liberty and privacy if I thought the world would become a genuinely safer and better place.   However picking up the likes of these two hardly meets that criteria.

The point I’m trying to make is that when internet filtering, censoring and surveillance techniques are utilised the only people who are affected are those with nothing to hide, plus perhaps a few thick criminals/terrorists who are probably of limited danger.   There are many ways to circumvent filters, there are lots of ways to communicate anonymously and all those who need to are doing just that.

Do Al Qaeda communicate through Facebook, My Space or Twitter – I suspect not.  Do they send out their orders by emails in clear text with PDF attachments detailing their targets – of course they don’t.    They’ll be using TOR, encrypted emails, hidden web sites and communication networks on the Dark web.   There will be codes, ciphers and carefully devised communication methods and strategies plus loads of other stuff on here The Ninja Proxy!

Of course they might be like this lot from the rather funny film Four Lions –

 

But I suspect not.

Should Facebook Be Blocked at Work ?

So do you think it’s legitimate to use Facebook at work? Is it ok to spend an hour or two catching up with friends in your lunch hour or is it strictly a leisure time site.

A couple of people who read my post about how you can get passed facebook blocks at work got a bit annoyed about me suggesting it should be banned. Although this is not surprising as the comments were from my friends who are a pretty anarchic lot and would get upset if they were banned from invading Burma. I suspect the phrases ‘infringing on my democratic rights’ and ‘subverting the masses’ might be used.

I mean I hate filtering and censorship more than most people, but really if I was paying someone to do a job and they instead spent thirty hours a week messing about on FB then I have to say I’d be pretty annoyed. So although I hate the blocking aspect I think an employer has the right to do this within reason.

After all this afternoon I opened up Facebook and was confronted by this rather witty post –

A Sample Facebook Post?

Now if you can try and focus on the caption below it’s rather witty, but I think most of us would recognise that having images popping up like that on your screen at work is probably not that appropriate. The problem is that the image is from a wall post and you have little control about what appears there. If that image popped up on your brand new 40″ LCD monitor – there’s a very real chance someone would take offence.

The Problem With Filtering is The Technology

Of course that particular image may get blocked anyway even if you don’t specifically target certain web sites. Many of the advanced content filters make assessments on each image that is downloaded. So the algorithm might for instance assess the number of flesh colored pixels and block on that basis. Certainly the market leaders have this facility although you can see massive problems in this as well. After all the lady from our Facebook picture seems to have forgotten her underwear but to be fair her impressive behind has very few flesh colored pixels on display (umm).

So the following picture would definitely trigger the flesh pixel trigger on some content filters I’ve used.

Facebook Censored Images

Although most of us won’t find that terribly erotic ( although the world is wonderfully diverse and it’s great that someone will!) – it will likely trigger the erotic/porn filter on many filters. Algorithms aren’t great at this sort of stuff, they miss things – lines of code deciding what you can or can’t do is never going to be that desirable.

After all if you’ve got a dirty mind ( I confess I have) then you would presume masses of flesh colored pixels would mean PORN. But it’s not always the case as I hope the above picture illustrates – it’s not that clear cut – just like life!

Censorship should be restricted in my opinion to genuinely criminal or illegal stuff, otherwise you just start on that road of banning things that are embarrassing, inconvenient or you’d just rather keep quiet about. It’s certainly not a basis of democracy, and nobody will die from seeing a slim, pert behind climbing into a helicopter!

The solution in my opinion at least for work is a simple Internet Usage policy which relies on people’s common sense. Let employees use the internet in their own time for ordinary tasks – don’t overly restrict but make it clear that you should have consideration for your fellow workers, don’t access porn, gamble or run a far right political party at work. You can do that at home, or travelling home on the train with your smart phone.

Additional

Ok some times jobs are just too boring without some sort of distraction – so if you want to access Facebook even if it’s blocked – check this post on proxy avoidance about half way down there’s a link to download the demo version of Identity Cloaker which is free and works for Facebook and a few other sites.

It’s demonstrated on this video –

If you just want a Facebook Unblocker then there’s nothing to beat it, also works with Twitter at the time of writing (December 2013)

Facebook is Blocked at Work – Here’s a Workaround

Yes I know it is addictive, yes I know you love to spend hours on there – which is probably the reason Facebook is blocked at your work. I did some work  last year on a content filter at a medical company – although we did not block anything, we simply monitored the amount of time users spent on different sites. The amount of time some people spent on Facebook, MySpace and Ebay was simply incredible – one young lady  was spending over 30 hours a week regularly on these websites !!!  Which is not bad for a 35 hour contract of employment and we didn’t even count those who used a Facebook proxy.

The idea of monitoring the we sites people used and for how long was obviously to help build a solid case for blocking them. You see the company HAD quite a relaxed Internet Usage Policy and they were also quite happy to allow people to browse what they wanted (within reason) during breaks and after work. However management were shocked at the amount of time people were actually spending on these sites, after all it didn’t seem like they had much time left for actual work.

So we ended up blocking Facebook  completely…..

Now for ordinary people who just want to keep in touch, or check in with friends occasionally this can be a bit annoying. So I want to tell you a bit about how websites are normally blocked within a corporate network. However if you are thinking of circumventing them, then first of all though you check your  employment and internet use policies – if  there’s stuff in there about not using the internet for personal use etc, etc and phrases like subject to disciplinary actions APPEAR – then you’re probably best waiting until you get home. Accessing  web sites that your company have specifically decided to block is likely to get you into trouble – but hey that’s your choice.

Facebook Blocked By Firewall – Using A Web Proxy

The very simplest way to block access to a website is just by using a proxy or firewall combination. Here you can just create a single black list of websites which will not be allowed through. So for instance in this case we might-have the URL – www.facebook.com listed, perhaps the IP address of the Facebook servers or maybe both. All internet traffic will go through the firewall or proxy so when you request any websites in this list you just get sent to a pre-prepared pages instead (usually a warning or information page).

This is the way everyone used to do this, although it’s pretty easy to get round now. If you look on the internet about ways to access Facebook at work or school you’ll find that the usual suggestion is to use an external proxy (they’ll often have stupid names like shadow proxy or something like that!) What happens here is you go to a proxy website, then type in your URL (eg Facebook) into the web proxy,  which then fetches the page and displays it in a little frame for you. From your site you are communicating with the proxy server (not Facebook) and so the Firewall does not block your request.

In MOST places this does not work anymore for a variety of reasons, however these are the main ones:

  1. The proxy sites are themselves blocked by the firewall
  2. Firewalls only allow access through the company proxy (which will not allow a proxy chain).
  3. Most companies now use more sophisticated filters which will look inside the network packet for the blocked site. Meaning using just a proxy won’t work.

If your company does not bother with these restrictions, then you may be able to use the web proxies to access sites online but  most simply won’t work. In fact if your company network is that insecure then you may actually find a free online proxy and surf directly through it (instead of through frames in a web proxy). Just search for some free proxies, find their IP address and input the address into your browser under the screen below which you can find under Internet Options / Connections / LAN settings or something like that.

Facebook Blocked - Using A Proxy

Here you relay all your web requests directly through the external proxy which is normally quicker and you shouldn’t have advertisements and little frames added to your browsing session. If you find a fast enough proxy then you may not even notice the difference in speed from normal surfing.

Remember this only works in environments that have limited security settings so check it out before hand. Most places you won’t be able to even modify those settings in Internet Explorer (there’s ways around this little problem as well but that’s for another post).

Facebook Blocked By Content Filter

This is by far the most difficult scenario to bypass as content filters  actually look at the data in each network packet. So even if you are using a proxy to relay your request to a blocked site like Facebook, then the content filter will still see the url in your data.  So not only do you need the protection of a proxy server, you also need some way to stop the filter reading the contents of your web requests too.

The solution is encryption, if you encrypt your connection nobody can see anything except the IP address of the server you are accessing.  To do this you need to set up either your own remote VPN or you use a trusted service like Identity Cloaker which encrypts everything by default anyway. Of course Identity Cloaker is a paid service but if you just want to get round a facebook block Then you’re in luck as the demo version is available for free which actually allows access to Facebook!

See this video – Facebook Blocked

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Click on the graphic to go to the download page, use the demo account and you can connect through a secure encrypted tunnel to-any of Identity Cloaker’s servers and effectively change your IP address at will. Through this you can surf through all of the most sophisticated content filters and secure infrastructures.  This version is only the demonstration so it will only work with a specific list of  websites – Facebook and Twitter Both are both currently on the allowed list.

So if Facebook is Blocked and you want a solution – there you have it.  i did mention this earlier, but remember if you’re sitting at your desk and someone sees you accessing Faceboo0k then you might have some problems. They’re  certainly going to know you’ve BYPASSED Their filter !!! So be aware of you company policy. This method will also work in the many countries which -have Facebook Blocked and filtered as well. There are quite a few other sites allowed in the demo modes which have been blocked in countries across the world – such as Blogger, Twitter, Squidoo and Wikimedia for instance. If you want to use it for accessing –other websites like BBC Iplayer , Hulu, Pandora etc, etc. which are normally restricted by location – then you’ll need to upgrade your subscription any problems ask the Identity Cloaker guys.   I like watching loads of stuff which is blocked where I am, including some of the Australian and Canadian TV channels normally inaccessible from the UK.

Anyway hope this helps people and do not get in to-any trouble !!