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Editor's Blog and Industry Comments

Parliamentary porn surfing provokes industry reaction

05 September, 2013
IT security companies discuss the malware implications of employees in the UK parliament accessing websites classified as pornographic

Under a Freedom of Information request, the Huffington Post has scooped a controversial story regarding the use of parliamentary computers to access pornographic websites in large number up to July this year. Whilst not denying these transgressions, a parliamentary spokesman declined to comment on what constitutes pornography according to their network rules.

This fact in itself prompted some debate on whether the indiscriminate surfing was maybe as bad as it was made out to be. Regardless of this, accessing sites with such a classification regardless of content could be seen as wasting time and therefore tax payers money.

Over 300,000 attempts were made to access pornographic websites at the Houses of Parliament in the past year, prompting the following response from Philip Lieberman, CEO of Lieberman Software Corporation.

“According to the story, the issue is not about a security threat, but about a morality threat.  Porn sites as bait, have been a long time vector of malware and those that seek to gain surreptitious access to systems. Web filters would not be effective in stopping the threat as many such attacks occur in email that contains payloads marked as potential porn. Similarly, infected sites might have innocuous names that would pass filters with the sole purpose of infections again with the promise of porn. Even legitimate non-porn sites may have a compromised section containing an infection that is also represented to be porn".

Phil continues by making an interesting point regarding the negative consequences of pushing pornographic sites underground and banning them. Regardless of the moral issues at stake, the effect on malware prevalence could be dramatic in such a case.

“As strange as it might sound, conventional porn sites run by legitimate corporations will not normally contain infections and will not compromise national security.  Attempting to block legitimate sites will lead to a greater demand for illegitimate sites as will any attempt to implement any moral prohibitions on behaviour.  It is the illegitimate and email delivered content of "free porn" that security professionals are concerned about".

“As to porn in parliament, I am sure there are more truly obscene things done with your tax money than watching porn.”

Tim Erlin, director of risk and strategy at Tripwire added his reinforcement to this point, stating also that mainstream pornography sites are less likely to be harbouring malware than then used to be.

“The traditional security argument for blocking access to online pornography is that porn sites are more likely to deliver malware to the user’s system. There’s a tendency to remember the days of unwanted pornographic pop-ups long after a site was visited. You might remember Julie Amero, a teacher who was wrongfully accused of surfing pornography in the classroom.

“Attackers will always follow the better target. People viewing pornography are already more likely to be careful, and less likely to share what they’ve found than those viewing religious or political websites. Today, you’re more likely to be infected with malware from a variety of other types of websites than pornography.”

David Lomax, Director of Sales Engineering EMEA from Barracuda Networks points out the simple solution of web filtering as a means of preventing such system abuse both in the corporate environment as well as the corridors of power.

"Members of Parliament might feel they are expert policy makers, but they fall short in the web policy stakes.  A simple web filter installed by the IT department in the Houses of Parliament could have avoided a lot of red faces and kept the saucy MPs focused on the proper job at hand while saving the taxpayer a lot of money in unproductive downtime."

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