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Software blocks nudity
September 20, 2000: 12:41 p.m. ET

Content Technologies' software detects nude photos on e-mails, blocks e-mail
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - As companies become increasingly concerned about being sued for sexual harassment, a U.K.-based company has released software designed to detect and block pornographic images attached to e-mail.

Content Technologies, a leading developer of e-mail content management and security software, just launched a program called PORNsweeper. The company claims that the image analysis software "is the first to allow organizations to prevent what they consider unacceptable images, including pornography, being e-mailed into or out of their networks."

PORNsweeper is designed to help companies enforce their e-mail policy to protect themselves and their employees from legal liability, sexual harassment, loss of productivity, and network congestion caused by sending inappropriate pictures as e-mail attachments.

The new software comes after Dow Chemical fired 50 workers and disciplined another 200 for distributing pornography and other unacceptable material by e-mail. There have been similar cases this year at the White House, the New York Times, Xerox Corp, the U.K. Houses of Parliament and the Orange phone company in the United Kingdom.

PORNsweeper is an add-on module for Content Technologies' MAILsweeper program, one of the most commonly used e-mail content scanning programs. It works by scanning the contents of image files attached to e-mails or embedded within e-mail attachments and conducting several tests to conclude the likelihood that the file contains a pornographic image.

The software prevents the transmission of the offending image by blocking the entire e-mail, including the photograph.

Searching for skin

The software searches the file for the color of human pigmentation in the pixels, since nude or pornographic images contain more skin pixels than other images where skin is present. One problem with this approach is that "head shot" photographs are almost entirely skin and would be flagged by the program even though they are not pornographic. To work around this problem Content Technologies has designed "face detection" technology that allows legitimate head shot photographs to pass through the system.

Companies can adjust the sensitivity of PORNsweeper so that users in departments that commonly distribute human images, such as marketing and advertising, can still use it to detect unacceptable images. For example, images that may be appropriate at Victoria's Secret and Playboy may not be appropriate at a law firm.

To be sure, the software is not perfect. Baby pictures and pictures of people on vacation at the beach, while not pornographic, could be flagged by the software because they contain large amounts of skin.

"A lot of this goes to methods for not getting sued," said Ken Sokol, senior product marketing manager at Content Technologies. "When you talk about the difference between a woman in a bikini and a woman being nude, to a corporation, it might not matter."

A database of images

Corporate Technologies spent two years building a database of images that could be considered inappropriate. The software compares pictures contained in e-mail attachment to images in that database, looking at both skin patterns and poses.

"We had Ph.D.-level researchers who, at a certain level, did nothing all day but surf porn," Sokol said.

When the software finds a potentially offensive image, it segregates the image for a manual review by a company employee. Many companies now manually review all image files sent in or out, which can waste the time of valuable IT personnel, Sokol said.

"You don't want your IT people being the reviewer. That is not what they went to school for," he said. "By setting objective standards, this software takes them out of the role of being sheriff."

Sokol said that the software correctly separates offensive images from legitimate ones 80 percent of the time, and that it tends to err on the side of caution -- flagging a legitimate picture rather than letting a pornographic one get through.

The software can be set to send an e-mail to the employee telling them that one of their messages has been held for manual review because it contains a potentially offensive image. While that can act as a deterrent to employees contemplating sending nude pictures, it also could alarm an employee who sent a baby picture to a friend.

Baltimore Technologies (BALT: Research, Estimates), a London-based provider of security software, announced on Sept. 14 that it would acquire the privately held Content Technologies for 91 million Baltimore ordinary shares. At the time, those shares were worth £702.5 million ($992 million). Back to top


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