Porn infecting 'thousands' of e-learning sites

13th February 2009 at 00:00
Malicious spammers are getting through firewalls and causing a global problem, but the latest free software could stop them

Tens of thousands of schools, universities and e-learning websites around the world have become infected by hardcore pornographic content, The TES can reveal.

Last month, we reported that up to 20 primary school websites had been targeted by "malicious spammers" who upload - or create programmes that upload - explicit sexual material linked to the schools' websites.

However, it has now emerged that this initial figure was vastly underestimated, with thousands of webpages linked to schools or other learning institutions carrying unsavoury material.

A source within the US public schools system contacted The TES with lists of infected websites and said the problem is greater than first feared.

"This is a big problem for schools, not only in your country but around the world," the source said. "The figure of `up to 20 schools' is a huge underestimate."

The main problem, the source added, is with older versions of the free, open-source software Moodle, which allows teachers and pupils to create interactive websites, as well as communicate with one another. It is understood that previous versions of Moodle software had been cracked by computer hackers, who were then creating user profiles on the sites to upload pornography, called "profile spam".

According to Moodle.com, the firm that produces the software, efforts have been made to tell users to upgrade their software. Martin Dougiamas, the founder, was adamant that any flaws in the Moodle software code had been "found and fixed" and it was purely a case of users keeping their software up to date.

Mr Dougiamas added: "Profile spam is almost invariably not accessible from within the affected Moodle site itself. The spammers usually can't join courses (and aren't interested in doing so) and so never come up as fellow participants for any actual pupils, and there is no link to these affected pages from within the school sites."

The software is used by 27 million people worldwide, but only 45,000 are officially registered, so it is difficult for Moodle.com to alert everyone. Worryingly, even the most powerful school firewalls are unable to prevent users within schools accessing the material.

Becta, the Government's educational technology agency, said it was investigating, adding that school internet security is a major concern.

Stephen Lucey, Becta's executive director of strategic technologies, said: "We have always placed the very highest priority on safeguarding learners while using the internet at school, and so we are concerned to hear of this case.

"We have a robust internet service provider accreditation scheme which ensures that suppliers from the scheme provide schools with in-built filters to block inappropriate or offensive material being accessed at school, and to date this have always proven to be very successful."

He added: "The Byron Review (on inappropriate materia) on the internet and in video games] recommended that all schools use an accredited service, and we are working with internet service providers to schools to ensure their services meet the criteria."

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