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How your kids are beating your parental controls and is there anything you can do?

Barry Collins
2 Feb 2015
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Barry Collins reveals how kids beat the broadband providers’ safeguards

A recent survey conducted by telecoms regulator Ofcom found that almost a quarter of parents believed their kids could bypass parental control filters if they wanted to. That means the other three quarters are either hopelessly naïve or Ofcom conducted its survey amongst the Amish community.

The Prime Minister may have told parents that the internet filters his government effectively forced Britain’s major broadband providers to switch on would keep their children safe, but no filter is 100% effective – far from it. It’s not difficult to bypass these roadblocks. In fact, it’s often breathtakingly easy. Here, we reveal just some of the ways in which your kids might be sneaking around your internet filters without your knowledge.

^ All the big broadband providers are now offering, or simply foisting, filters upon their users

Proxy sites

Proxy sites basically allow the kids to bypass the internet filters by forcing the internet traffic to go via a diversion. Instead of the internet filters noticing that your kids are visiting naughtybannedsite.com, all they see is the address of the proxy: if that proxy site itself isn’t on the broadband provider’s blacklist, the kids can visit any site they wish.

Some of the broadband providers are wise to this and block access to thousands of proxies, but it’s a constant arms race with new proxy sites popping up all the time. It took us no longer than a minute’s Googling to find one that evaded BT’s parental controls, and there’s no reason to suspect it will take a clued-up teenager any longer.

Worse still, there’s a number of iffy sites that purport to offer proxies that try and foist all manner of crapware onto your PC. If the kids aren’t careful about what they’re clicking on, you could end up with some hard-to-shift junk on your PC(s). 

^ We quickly evaded BT's controls using a proxy and got to a restricted (if fairly tame) site

Next-door’s Wi-Fi

Are the parents of the kids next door more relaxed about their internet filtering? Yours could easily ask neighbouring children for their Wi-Fi password – many people don’t change it from the one printed on the back of the router – and access the internet via an unfiltered connection. They don’t even have to be right next door, as today’s wireless routers are capable of beaming a signal a few hundred feet. In our tests, we could access no fewer than five different access points from inside our house in the Sussex suburbs.

They might not even need to ask for a password. Some people still run unprotected Wi-Fi connections in their home, or have changed the password to something easily guessable. And short of peeking into their device settings, it’s very difficult to tell which Wi-Fi connection your kids are connected to. The easiest way is to check your own router settings and see which devices are currently connected to your Wi-Fi hotspot.    

VPNs

VPNs aren’t only used to watch the US shows on Netlfix (you didn’t hear that from us, right?), they’re also used by teenagers to skip around home net restrictions. Free VPN services such as Hotspot Shield created an encrypted tunnel between the kids’ PC and the company’s servers, making it impossible for the broadband providers to see what they’re surfing. The Hotspot Shield installation screen even boasts that it will let you “join your friends on Facebook, tweet your updates or simply take in a quick film on YouTube”. The free version worked flawlessly in our tests, even streaming HD video (most of these free VPN services have a reputation for being a little sluggish).

The VPN is quite discreet, and you’d do well to spot whether it’s installed on a PC with a casual look over their shoulder. For Hotspot Shield, look for a little green shield icon in the System Tray in the bottom right-hand corner of the Windows screen. Other VPN software may vary.

Portable browsers

There are two reasons why your kids won’t want to use the default browser on a home laptop if they are surfing for something they shouldn’t. Although teenagers will almost certainly know about the various privacy modes – preventing anything untoward showing in the browser history – it’s all too easy to forget to switch it on. And secondly, the broadband provider’s filters will be censoring the sites they can visit.

However, portable browsers that are installed on a USB stick – leaving no trace on the host PC – can be used to browse blacklisted sites. The Tor Browser (www.torproject.org) is an adapted version of Firefox that is designed to protect users’ privacy by rerouting their web traffic around several different international locations, making it difficult to trace.  This is not only useful for Edward Snowden-type whistleblowers, who don’t want the authorities to come knocking on their door, it’s handy for teenagers who want to circumvent mum and dad’s internet filters, because the internet provider can’t easily see what they’re surfing.

The internet provider may block access to sites offering the Tor browser, but if the kid can get hold of the Tor browser whilst they’re out of the house, the filters won’t stop them from using it to get at whatever site they like. And whilst browsing with Tor is slower than a regular desktop browser, because of all the international hops the browser performs to safeguard users’ privacy, it’s perfectly capable of video playback.

Google Translate

Google Translate might seem like an innocent means of converting Spanish websites into something comprehensible, but it can also be used as a cheeky way to view blocked sites. The Translate website offers a feature that allows you to enter a web address and have the site’s text converted into a different language. Teenagers can enter the address of the porn sites on your ISP’s blacklist and view the photos, albeit they’ll have to read the text in a foreign language. Still, they might learn a few new words…  

What can you do?

If your kids are determined to see what the internet has to offer then they will, and if not at home then at somone else's house or someone else's phone - depending on their age obviously. Younger children may be defeated by such simplistic blocking, but getting into a technical arms race with a curious 13-year old boy will inevitably lead to you losing (trust us). 

Looking at it that way you're best off monitoring their internet use. Simply keep internet-connected devices in family rooms, not tucked away in the spare room. If your kids are old enough to be left at home without supervision, then any technical measure is unlikely to prevail and you instead need to talk to them about what they're curious about and how the internet doesn't neccesarily provide a realistic take on certain subjects.

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