Penn Manor Watches You Online

by Gabrielle Bauman

Everything we do is traceable – school is no different.

Students sometimes wonder  – can they (the school administration) see what web pages I’m seeing?

The short answer is that yes, Penn Manor does watch what you do online. But it isn’t like Big Brother, more like a vigilant parent.

“I trust that the students will behave in a professional manner on the school computers,” said Technology Director Charlie Reisinger, “but sometimes they don’t and that is why we have the protocols that we do.”

Penn Manor has a variety of ways to track the web history of the users online, the primary one being the use of an agility filter.

Another site bites the dust as Penn Manor's filter gets to it.

An agility filter not only tracks an individual’s web history (and can see the pages being viewed), but also can learn from the user’s web habits.

For example, if a number of people in a class period were to search for the web game “MAX Dirt Bike 2” and play that game on the same site, then the filter flags it as a game site and therefore inappropriate for the settings that the school has set. If enough people go on that website, then the filter will notice this and block it so no more users can visit it.

The “BLOCKED” message is just a part of life for some students, but others see it only occasionally.

“I see it about one time for every six pages that I view,” said sophomore Chris Cuascut, “whenever I do research, I see it at least once.”

“I get it only once in a while,” said another student, “last year it only happened one time, when I was working on a school  project.”

The teachers are supplied with special override codes so they can access Youtube or similar sites for educational reasons. Students are encouraged, however, to use other video sites like TeacherTube.com if they need to find a certain educational video. According to Reisinger, the general expectation is that students keep within the acceptable bounds and most do.

“But what inevitably happens is that someone goes on Youtube and watches music videos all day, which have nothing to do with school,” said Reisinger, “and that hogs bandwidth, slowing everyone else down.”

Which is the reason that the school has blockers. Instances of students actually searching for things like pornography or bomb making are very rare, but the danger is always there.

The typical Penn Manor "blocked" screen.

Another fact to consider is that game and video sites take up much more broadband than other, more educational websites. So when you complain about the computers being so slow, look around you. Chances are there’s someone playing Interactive Buddy.

Penn Manor High School’s internet comes from a combination of Comcast and an agreement with Millersville University.

Don’t worry about the school knowing your passwords, however. The software does not keep track of what you type, only what is on your screen.

That’s part of the reason that many websites replace the characters that you type into a password box with asterisks or small circles – so anyone who happens to be looking over your shoulder (or a system administrator) can’t get into your bank account.

There are other ways to find out a password – like a keylogger. A keylogger is a piece of software or hardware that logs the keystrokes a user is typing, so that a third party, like the CEO of a company, can keep track of what their employees are doing. Of course, there are darker aspects of this, like a hacker trying to obtain vital information like passwords or your social security number.

This is why it is unsafe for a user to use the same password for multiple websites – like using the same password for Facebook, Twitter, and your bank account. If an identity thief knows this one password, they can get into all of your accounts.

Even though students are not meant to be on any site that does not have to do with their education, the school has no interest in hacking their students’ Facebook or email accounts when they do visit those sites.

Websites that require a user to login like Facebook, Twitter, or even The Washington Post use something called cookies to keep track of the user’s name and password. When you check that little box that says “Remember me” or say “Yes” when your browser asks if you want it to remember your password, you are actually giving them permission to install a cookie on your computer that keeps track of that password.

ACCESS DENIED! at Penn Manor

Cookies are basically a tiny piece of text that holds a small amount of information, like your password or your site preferences. Many websites use them to gather information about their users to find out their likes and dislikes – and then put up advertising customized to that person’s needs. Contrary to popular belief, cookies cannot search your computer, only the web pages that you visit. The way you surf can often indicate facts about yourself – whether you’re male or female, a teen or middle aged, and even the area where you live. Most cookies are harmless, however.

Because of the type of filters used by Penn Manor, the staff cannot see your password, only the web page that you visit.

There aren’t people watching what you do every moment of the day – it’s the filter. The technology department neither has the time nor the resources to have someone monitoring the system twenty four hours a day, and so many new websites pop up every day that it would be impossible for them to look at every website out there on the Internet. When the filter picks up unauthorized activity, it sends a message to the system administrator – which could be Principal Phil Gale or Reisinger – and lets them deal with the student.

Don’t try and break through the school’s security, though. The software can pick up any unusual activity right away.

For example, there is The Onion Router, or Tor. Tor works by taking your browser’s request for a web page and routing it through other volunteer computers, encrypting it all the way until it finally comes out at the end computer, where it completes the request. Then the user sees the web page without any outside sources knowing what their IP address is or what they are viewing. This is great, in countries like China where the government tries to control what its users access.

But in Penn Manor? Bad idea.

Computers have come a long way, and so has the Internet.

As soon as you start encrypting your traffic and hiding your IP, the filter picks this up – and it would be hard not to, since instead of web addresses and the usual data it gets gobbledegook – and sends an alert to the admins.

“Using programs like Tor is very distinct,” said Reisinger, “And it’s a violation of the Internet use policy, which is a School Board Policy.

Using any type of service or program to bypass the security systems (or mess with the way that the system works in any way) on the school computers is a violation of the Internet policy, and punishments can vary upon the severity of the offense. And since the software can track who was on what computer when, there is no getting out of punishment.

However, if another person tampers with a computer while you are away from the keyboard without your knowledge or consent, it is appropriate to ask the administration to examine the security feed from that time and place.

“The student would lose their computer privileges for a specified period of time. In addition to this, students may receive Saturday School, be suspended, or be expelled depending upon the severity of their actions,” said Gale in an email.

Filtering the Internet has gotten questions from some in the past as to whether filtering violates the freedom of speech promised in the First Amendment.

The anonymonity network Tor.

“I don’t think it is (a violation of the First Amendment) as long as it’s their stuff,” said one Penn Manor student.

“It’s their Internet,” said another.

The computers do belong to the school, and they are school property – but the Internet does not belong to anyone, as governments have learned the hard way in the past. Despite this concern, Penn Manor has received no challenges for the right of free Internet.

Penn Manor students should remember one thing when using the laptops or other school computers: it isn’t your computer.

Because the computers are for schoolwork and anything else is just a waste of your time – and the school’s time.

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