Filter has blind spot or two

Software: Eyeguard is designed to protect against porn, but Larry, Moe and Curly can't get through, either.

January 10, 2000|By Hiawatha Bray | Hiawatha Bray,BOSTON GLOBE

Though I'm no fan of the deceased rap musician Biggie Smalls, I'd never recoil in horror at the very sight of him. But my computer does. One glimpse of the man, and the system locks up.

The same thing happens with my childhood role models, the Three Stooges. If I seek out Internet images of their old movie posters, my PC throws a fit. The machine has even developed an allergy to the work of Michelangelo.

On the other hand, I can't display pictures of naked women on this computer, either. And that's what really matters, right?

Well, if you think so, just shell out $29.95 for Eyeguard, a flawed but fascinating piece of British software that takes this Internet porn-filtering thing a wee bit further.

Instead of looking for known smut sites, or even scanning for dirty words, Eyeguard tracks the images that appear on your monitor. The software tries -- not always successfully -- to figure out whether these are porn pictures. And if they are, Eyeguard protects your mind from corruption by blanking out the screen.

"The success on hitting pornography, on our tests, is more than 98 or 99 percent," says Jonathan Scott, technical director at Eye-T Technology Ltd., which developed Eyeguard. The trouble is that Eyeguard only attains this high batting average by weeding out a variety of harmless stuff.

It's the classic problem with all Internet filters: the curse of the "false positive."

Early word-scanning programs would reject sites that used the word "breast" because the software wasn't smart enough to notice that the next word was "cancer."

The word-sniffers are much smarter now, but still far from infallible, a fact often touted by libertarian types who oppose all efforts to tidy up the Web.

I'm not a libertarian. I loathe Web porn and welcome efforts to shield our kids from the filth. So I'm inclined to look kindly on Eyeguard. Then there's my love for clever technologies. And for all its failings, Eyeguard is impressive.

A stream of compressed-image data, mixed with text and sounds and who-knows-what-else, comes flooding into your computer. Eyeguard must wait until the video data are dumped into the computer's video display system, which has its own separate processor and memory bank.

Eyeguard scans the contents of the video memory, in search of image pixels that appear to be human skin. It must decode the pattern of these pixels to decide how much skin is showing, and then it must decide at what point the image crosses the line from PG-13 to XXX. It's a miracle it works at all.

Right out of the box, it locked me out of the official "Baywatch" Web site, which ought to be renamed Silicone Valley.

Eyeguard is tunable, so you can make it less sensitive. The higher the setting, the more skin you're allowed to see. Eyeguard starts at a stingy 20 percent, far too strict for "Baywatch." But jump it up to 50 percent, and say hello to Pamela Anderson. And at this looser setting, the software still thwarted my fumbling, shamefaced efforts to visit some true smut sites.

Even at 50 percent, though, I found myself locked out of some harmless Web pages. Biggie Smalls' picture was on a page at the CNN news site, describing the dead musician's new album. Smalls is shown fully clothed, but there must be something about his face. Oh, well. I never much cared for him, either.

But what's wrong with the Three Stooges? Curly occasionally wore drag, but he never did a nude scene. As for Michelangelo, maybe it's a testament to his genius that one of his statues of a reclining nude seemed disgracefully lifelike to Eyeguard.

Scott admits the software isn't perfect, but says it's mainly a deterrent. When a child looks at a forbidden image, Eyeguard saves a copy in a special file, so Mom and Dad will find out. The same feature is built into the $299 version for corporate networks.

Perhaps the product's most powerful feature is a sheet of bright yellow warning stickers to be glued to computers. Scott said one company stopped using Eyeguard after two weeks; workers cleaned up their acts once they realized the firm had an automatic porn detector.

Unfortunately, Eyeguard is also a rap-star detector, a Renaissance- art detector, even a Stooge detector. It's too prudish even for my tastes. Nice try, though.

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