Exposed: the shocking flaws in TalkTalk's porn filter

28 Jun 2012

PC Pro exclusive: ISP's parental control filter allows easy access to pornography

A PC Pro investigation has exposed basic flaws in the TalkTalk child internet safety filter being championed by MPs.

A cross-party group of MPs, led by Conservative Claire Perry and supported by national newspapers, are calling for ISPs to block pornography and other adult content at the network level.

Our investigation has revealed fundamental flaws in the TalkTalk filtering system that would potentially give children easy access to hardcore pornography.

The HomeSafe filter sifts through all subscriber traffic and purportedly blocks content in selected categories, such as pornography, social networks and violence.

Yet, even with the filter set to the highest safety level, we were easily able to access pornographic images and video using nothing more sophisticated than popular search engines.

With Google's parental controls flipped off, we accessed pages of pornographic images using Google's Image Search. Although the sites hosting the images were blocked, we were still able to click on the thumbnail images in search results to see enlarged photos - which ironically appear over the warning that the page has been blocked.

HomeSafe filter

Bing's Image Search faced the same problem - as did its video search, which not only offers several seconds of preview in thumbnail mode, but also pulls in videos directly from the originating site, allowing porn videos to be viewed even if the site itself is on TalkTalk's blacklist.

Easy workarounds

Children can go one step further and get full access to banned pornographic sites with free and widely available web tools.

Proxies are not blocked by Homesafe - a fact TalkTalk makes clear in its own support pages. This means a child need only enter the website's address into a free proxy to be given complete access to the page.

Even seemingly harmless sites such as Google Translate can also be used as a proxy. If you enter the address of a site into the translation tool, it dynamically creates a new URL with the same content in a different language - meaning any pornographic images or other adult content can be accessed.

YouPorn in Spanish

Inconsistent filters

TalkTalk's filters are also hugely inconsistent in what they choose to blacklist. Social network controls bar access to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, but not to Google+, StumbleUpon or reddit - including "subreddits" dedicated to sexual content.

Likewise, photography site Flickr was banned, but not the "nude" section of fellow photography site 500px.

A TalkTalk spokesperson said: "We note the PC Pro searches and will look at the results in question. If a customer finds a site that they think should be blocked they can alert us so we can take action." (Update: TalkTalk has now updated its statement, which can be found at the foot of this article.)

Political support

Launched last year, TalkTalk's HomeSafe is already used by 385,000 of TalkTalk's 4m subscribers.

The system was endorsed byClaire Perry MP on the day it launched, while newspapers including the Sunday Times have promoted TalkTalk's HomeSafe in front-page news stories.

Full details of our investigation into TalkTalk's HomeSafe filter - and what parents can do to keep children safe online - will be in next month's issue of PC Pro, on sale 12 July.

PC Pro Issue 215

TalkTalk's new statement

"No security solution, whether online or in the real world, is ever 100% fail safe and unfortunately there will always be a way of bypassing these systems, be it a parental control service (including those that are installed on individual computers) or a lock on our front door. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't use them - they make a significant contribution to protecting ourselves and our families.

“HomeSafe helps parents manage the content that comes into their home, alongside other tools, such as safe search solutions offered by the likes of Google. There is no silver bullet when it comes to protecting children online, which we have always been the first to point out, but it is important that parents have access to tools which can help them.

“Furthermore, most young children do not seek out pornography and violence online but, as many parents know, they may stumble across it inadvertently. Determined seekers of online porn are one thing; an eight year old doing his or her homework online is another. We are continually working to evolve and improve HomeSafe and have a mechanism for parents to feedback to us. But, for the 430,000 customers who are already using HomeSafe today, it is a simple and effective way of helping to protect their children online.”

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