News: Important Message Regarding the Use of VPN’s

It has recently come to our attention that some students who are using the wireless network at school are also using an app which enables VPN to bypass the security systems protecting our network. There are some reasons why people may want to use a VPN, however it is worth knowing the full facts beforehand. The post below will explain what a VPN is, explain some of the reasons why you shouldn’t use them and explain the next steps we are taking to make your overall experience better, without the need for a VPN.

What is a VPN?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a method used to create a connection between devices over a public network, for example Internet or a private network owned by a service provider. VPN’s are often used by large businesses and educational institutions to allow users to connect to a private network. It is for these reasons that modern wireless capable devices like tablets and laptops/desktops come with the technology necessary to connect to VPN’s.

IMG_1765
An example of the home screen of a device with VPN activated. An indicator is visible in the upper left of the devices display.

Why you should not use one?
Firstly, the use of a VPN breaches the acceptable use policy (the message that pops up when you log on to a computer in school and was displayed when you enrolled your device in AirWatch) that students and staff signed when they chose to access the schools wireless network. Specifically, the policy states that you “must respect and not attempt to bypass security or access restrictions in place on the computer system“. Since a VPN bypasses the security system that is put in place to protect you in the first place, the use of one is forbidden.

Secondly and perhaps most importantly, the use of a VPN potentially puts you and your own safety online at risk. Since your device is connected to another network, it is possible that the individual or group who created the VPN could be monitoring your browsing patterns and stealing your personal data, for example email addresses, passwords, bank details: anything you enter whilst online. Large businesses or institutions who use a VPN often have to pay a lot of money for the service, so the chances of your personal data being stolen is higher whilst using illegitimate VPN services, which are often free.

Next Steps
We are aware that the reason many students started using a VPN in the first place is to access legitimate services such as Facebook, YouTube and Spotify and we understand why: with so much great educational content available for free on YouTube and the increasing role social media is playing in our school life, it is not ideal the fact that access to these services is sometimes restricted. For this reason, we are taking the following steps to improve your experience, whilst still ensuring you are sufficiently protected:

– We currently have a list of all devices which have a VPN service activated. This list is updates in real time to reflect devices which have either deleted or installed an app which enables a VPN connection. If your device has a VPN service enabled, it is suggested that you delete the app at the earliest opportunity. If you continue to have a VPN service installed on your device, then sanctions will be enforced until the VPN service is removed. We hope that restricting your access to our network would be a last resort!

– Currently, our web filtering is operated by an external agency. However, the Welsh Assembly Government has recently published guidelines around web filtering in schools. We are currently looking at how this will be implemented. This will allow our web filtering to be more flexibly to reflect the needs of our students and staff. Some examples of recommendations made by the Welsh Assembly Government are that media streaming sites should be unrestricted and that social media sites should be available to staff and students over the age of 11.

It is hoped that once these changes are in place, there will be no need to use a VPN and the risks to all will be reduced!

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