Thursday, September 3, 2009

Not so much a 'policy', more an 'elaborate IT practical joke'

I have a desk job, and my wife does not, and she refers to the physical location in which I work as “The Big Gray”, as in “The Monolithic, Colorless Urban Edifice Into Which You Disappear Daily”. Which, you know, fair enough. She has always referred to the office where I work this way, over a period of time in which I have worked for two different companies and at several different addresses. It is also the way in which she refers to the office buildings where other friends of ours work, as if everyone pulls into the same parking lot every morning, nods to each other sleepily in the marble lobby, rides up in the elevator and sits in more or less identical cubicles. And, again, not that far off, in spirit if not in literal, physical truth. This was especially true when my wife and I got together and I worked someplace with a rather relaxed attitude towards Personal Internet Usage. Between e-mail and AIM, I could spend the eight hours a day in which I sat at a workstation catching up with so many people they might as well have been sitting down the hall. To say nothing of staying abreast of the world in general via websurfing … as DOOM commands!

I know the connection between the text and the picture is super-thin ... I ... I just love this picture and wanted to use it.
But as time has gone by I have found myself in more and more restrictive IT environments, and now I have far fewer options for whiling away the hours. (“You could actually do some work!” I hear some of you shouting from the cheap seats. My response to that could fill another post entirely, and maybe it will someday, but short version: not really, through little to no fault of my own. “At least you have a job!” I hear others of you catcalling, and I have no comeback at all for that. You are right, I am lucky. I’m still going to gripe about things I don’t understand.)

What confuses me is the seemingly arbitrary nature of the restrictions at work. It starts out as not-too-confusing …

A partial list of websites I am FORBIDDEN from accessing at work:

MSN Zone

Wizards of the Coast
CBS Sports
Hark! A Vagrant

And I kind of get those restrictions (which means I completely get them, I just don't like them). Obviously the first two fall under a general webmail ban. I think the ban is in effect for two reasons. Time-wasting is one, and virus protection is the other. I could still do tons of personal e-mailing all day if I was willing to use my work account, but all the incoming mail would be scrubbed for worms and whatnot. And could potentially be monitored by corporate, which is enough disincentive to stop me from doing it altogether. MySpace, I imagine, is also banned as a pure and simple time-waster. I don’t do MySpace so I don’t care. MSN Zone is blocked under the category “Games” so, again, no wasting company time, please! Not even to take a five minute break between code revisions for a round of Bejeweled. Wizards of the Coast is the company that publishes Dungeons & Dragons and various other nerd games, and their website is mostly informational/catalog stuff, but still banned under “Games”. (Trust me, I have a point with this which I’ll get to below.) CBS Sports, which is where my buddies and I host our fantasy football league, is blocked because it is in the “Gambling” category. That’s … bizarre, but in some sense technically true, I suppose. And finally, Hark! A Vagrant is a silly webcomic that I enjoy reading, but it is blocked because it falls in the category of … “Uncategorized URLs”.

So (and if computer logic bores you senseless feel free to skip this graf) if I were to try to reconstruct a picture of the internet filters in use at my company, it would look something like this: I try to navigate to a website; the company servers make the request and see what comes back; software on the company server either (a) compares the URL or website name to a database of specific banned sites or (b) compares in the data in the META tags to a database of general banned terms or (c) some combination thereof. A match in the database means the site is blocked and I get a message including the specific category referenced in the database. No match in the DB means all clear and I get to the website I want. I tend to think the exact methodology is either (b) or (c) because of Hark! A Vagrant. It’s just such a tiny, unheard of site that I can’t believe it’s in a big VERBOTEN database. It’s a webcomic and only a webcomic, and “Webcomics” is not a banned category (see below), but more to the point it’s not hard to categorize so “Uncategorized URLs” must be websites with little or no data in their META tags, which in itself raises red flags on the company server.

Again, I may not be thrilled by the filtering, but I can justify almost all of it. Until we get to …

A partial list of websites I am TOTALLY allowed to access at work:

Yahoo! Groups
Adult Swim

NY Yankees

The Onion
Something Positive
Deviant Art

I could go on and on, but I think this list illustrates certain … inconsistencies. Yahoo! Groups is basically an aggregator for mailing lists, and the difference between it and Gmail in terms of my ability to waste time and my potential for downloading some harmful attachment is really negligible. Adult Swim is also a fun website to waste time with, especially the GAMES section. Totally not blocked. I can go right here, for example: Note that the word “game” appears TWICE in that URL. Flies right through the company filter unmolested. TerraGenesis is a British message board about miniatures and wargaming (very similar to D&D), and the Yankees website clearly has an interest in sports, although I guess you have to bring a little brainpower to it if you want to somehow parlay that into “Gambling”. Blogger is also fine – not that I would ever post here on company time, heaven forbid. I’ve worked in offices in the past where The Onion is blocked because of “Profanity” but apparently that rule is not in effect here. Something Positive is a foul-mouthed and mean-spirited webcomic which I dig (as I alluded to, webcomics in and of themselves are not banned). Deviant Art is actually a fairly harmless image repository but you would think it would get flagged just based on its name alone.

So, yeah. A wide array of counterexamples which totally shoot holes in my theory of how the web gets filtered here. I really have no way of intuiting which sites will or will not be blocked, I just have to kind of surf around and see what happens. And that, in and of itself, can actually be a pretty amusing way to kill time at work.

No comments:

Post a Comment