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Exposed: the shocking flaws in TalkTalk's porn filter

  • HomeSafe filter
  • YouPorn in Spanish
  • PC Pro Issue 215

By Nicole Kobie

Posted on 28 Jun 2012 at 09:31

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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User comments

Addendum

This Dennis IT department have asked a certain Nicole Kobie to explain her viewing of porn at work.

It is speculated that the research for this article may have been done in her own time. Also speculated is that the IT dept will be offering Nicole a job as she may know a way to beat the Dennis porn filters much to the delight of the IT dept.

(thats how it would go down at my workplace anyhow :P )

By willdamien on 28 Jun 2012

The fact that these filters are not very effective is not in itself shocking; what is shocking is that non-tech-savvy law-makers expect them to be so.

By The_Scrote on 28 Jun 2012

Wait for it and there we go

I was wondering how long it would take for PCPro to put something up about this after last nights BBC2 Newsnight program.
On the whole I still think it is a good idea, as it stops the uninitiated stumbling across this material, once the filters are improved. You'll never stop the determined teenager :) Thats where parental guidence has to play its part. It should still be opt-in though.

By BPerry on 28 Jun 2012

lol at your blurring of the fornicating stick figures!

By nelviticus on 28 Jun 2012

One and the same

Oh, the Right Honorable Claire Perry, the Conservative MP for Devizes (Wiltshire). The same woman who asked what she had to do to get called by the Speaker of the House..... and it wasn't buying him a lunch either......

By mark_scott_mcse on 28 Jun 2012

Claire Perry in "doesn't know what she's talking about" shocker.

But let's all "think of the children" for a moment. After all, they've been doing this google image search lark in schools for years!

I just wish that UK Ltd. would stop trying to legislate 2005 and accept the fact that technology is moving faster than their vague, sweeping, corporate-sponsored Acts of Parliament.

By eggjones on 28 Jun 2012

Ajamu

Basically, if China can't stop its citizens from flouting its own tight grip on the internet, the UK has no chance.

But my overwhelming fire is against those non tech savy MP's and papers who somehow see Internet controls as easy to implement as so many bad tech (and inaccurate) films.

By Ajamu1 on 28 Jun 2012

ON another note...

... Those, "This is Microsoft calling...", calls are still taking place and very much alive.

By rhythm on 28 Jun 2012

Shocking flaws??

I would every reader of PCPro knows that you can't stop a determined teenager from viewing porn. Porn filters are intended to stop younger children accidentally viewing such content.

The failure to achieve the impossible and lack of evidence of failure in the filters intended purpose leaves me completely unshocked.

By tirons1 on 29 Jun 2012

@tirons1

It's worse than that surely. Most younger children will use things like Google image search a lot. If that is the failure point then these tools are worse than useful because they lead to a sense of complacency.

Claire Perry is doing more harm than good. Perhaps she ought to learn to get a grip.

By Nodule on 29 Jun 2012

CHOOSE THE 'STRICT FILTERING' OPTION

The latest SuperSafeBoost has a specific option to force the search engine to only work in strict mode.

Found this out recently because something knocked out my security - I spotted it as soon as I turned on the PC.
When re-installing the extra option was there.

You can't over-ride the setting in the search engines. So surely that addresses a lot of the concerns

By david_bunyan on 1 Jul 2013

Talk Talk Stupid Broken Filter

I've just swapped to talktalk and after the second day i started seeing that silly Homesafe prevent rubbish pop up every where.. its really annoyed me so far that iv just had to turn the damn thing off... as it had been coming on for youtube, facebook, and even google sometimes but yet type in porn and what do you know!! no problem loading that!!! What the hell is this Homesafe thing playing at... Filters?? no!! Just broken more like

By Pedro_Zee on 30 Apr 2014

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