Faced with a technology glitch that apparently gave students temporary, wide-open access to websites through Google, an Illinois school district responded recently by shutting off access to the search provider for three days until administrators were able to put the necessary filters back in place.
What caused the disruption in the 29,000-student Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202, a breakdown that made news last week in the Chicago Tribune and other Illinois media outlets?
District officials initially attributed the woes to Google having made changes to its services that rendered the district’s Web filters “virtually useless,” in the words of John Harper, in an e-mail circulated within the school system explaining the woes. Those changes had forced the Internet company’s clients to accept all-or-none of Google’s services, he said.
Google officials offered a different explanation, saying the glitch could be traced to the company’s efforts to ramp-up security for its clients, including districts.
This much is known: Like many districts, Plainfield relies on filters that allow students to access various Google services, including searches and the use of Google docs and other tools, that are intended to enhance instruction and learning. Other sites, like YouTube, get blocked. Late last week, Plainfield officials said they became aware that students unexpectedly had access to sites through Google that weren’t on the approved list.
It didn’t take long for word to spread within the student body that the district had lowered its guard.
Over a two-week period before the district became aware of the problem and shut down Google access, about 520 students spent 247 hours watching YouTube during the school day, Harper said in his e-mail, citing records provided by the school system’s department of technology.
Plainfield system officials already were attuned to potential lapses, having weathered major security breach about a year earlier, said district spokesman Tom Hernandez. As a result, “whenever the security bell rings, we answer it,” Hernandez told Education Week in an interview.
Harper, in his e-mail, said he initially considered blocking all Internet access, but abandoned that idea because of the overall disruption it would cause, particularly in online testing. He instead limited the Web blockade to Google, and said students and staff would need to rely on Bing, Yahoo, and other Web services.
Google told Education Week it believes the disconnection in Plainfield was related to an upgrade the Internet company made to its security system. In 2011, Google made a new form of encryption, known as SSL, the default security for all signed-in users, including school districts, explained Shannon Newberry, a Google spokeswoman, in an interview. Since then, Google also has been rolling out SSL encryption for all Google users, whether they were signed in users or not, she said.
In some cases, school districts’ filters have stopped working with the change in encryption, though the company has created solutions designed to allow filters to continue to work, Newberry added. (School districts may require more configuration because of the detailed filtering many of them use on their sites, she said.) Plainfield officials also now believe the encryption issue is what tripped them up, said Hernandez, the district spokesman.
Newberry said she did not know if other districts had encountered similar problems. But she said Google has established work-arounds for districts that allow them to keep the filters they want in place, while also upgrading their security.
And so today, Plainfield students are Google users once more—within, of course, the limits established by the district.