Internet morals watchdog on guard

By MICHAEL FOREMAN

At an office in Hampton, Virginia, a team of 10 net-savvy workers scour the web for sexual content from basic sex education to sex acts.

This "quality assurance" team is responsible for making sure the parental blocking component of Symantec's Norton Internet Security 2000 remains effective. In part, this task involves keeping a database of questionable websites fully up to date.

The joke going around Symantec is that when the internal vacancy for these jobs was posted, only 2000 people applied.

Website blocking is nothing new - services like Net Nanny and programs like Cyber Patrol and Guard Dog have been around for a few years now.

But Symantec claims it has created a new category in consumer software with a package that combines website blocking with a "firewall," protecting the PC from hackers, snoopers and viruses, as well as preventing inadvertent disclosure of personal data.

In short, Norton Internet Security (NIS) is designed to serve as the guardian of your digital hearth, keeping the bad things out and the private things in.

"We're aiming to provide peace of mind," says Sydney-based regional product manager Ben Guthrie, pointing out that the meaning of "peace of mind" varies around the world.

American users, who are likely to be hooked up to highspeed broadband connections, are preoccupied with the security risk posed by having an internet connection that is permanently on.

Australian parents, on the other hand, are more concerned about their children giving out e-mail addresses after a scandal involving a police commissioner's daughter who received some unsolicited pornographic material.

This led Symantec to design a highly configurable program. The website blocking, for example, may be permissive or draconian, or switched off entirely.

Symantec's list of no-go areas, which on the CD now stands at around 36000 addresses, is not confined to sex sites.

The team in Virginia is also on the lookout for sites advocating drugs, or which contain references to violence or gambling, and keeps a watch on chat rooms, e-mail services, entertainment portals - even job search and financial pages.

Users may add their own blocked or permitted addresses on each account but they may not access the pre-supplied list, so you cannot tell whether a site is going to be blocked until you try it.

"We made the decision to hard code the addresses," says Mr Guthrie, otherwise a switched-on child might be able to extract that information.

The address list may be refreshed online with the same LiveUpdate feature used by Norton AntiVirus (which is bundled with NIS) to load the latest virus definitions. This service is free for the first year but, including virus definition updates, it costs $US19.95 a year thereafter.

Unfortunately, our limited testing found the blocking of some "questionable" local sites wanting.

Trying to get access to a well-known US site such as Playboy results in an immediate blocking message with a standard invitation to report an "incorrectly categorised" site.

By contrast, we were allowed to arrive at the home page and enter a New Zealand sex site, which declared itself to be "dedicated to providing sexual material, images, and anything a little bit unusual for sex enthusiasts all over the country."

In the same vein, while the New South Wales Lotteries site was blocked for "gambling," New Zealand's TAB site was freely navigable before its own password system prevented entry into the e-bet section.

Finally, former cannabis dealer Howard Marks' .uk based site was blocked on "drugs/non-medical" grounds, and the home page of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party was also stopped for "drugs/advocacy."

But a few entries down, a search engine had found a lengthy manifesto, at what appeared to be the party's previous address, and this downloaded straight away.

More seriously, NIS failed to stop one internet application, Hotline, from running. Hotline is a free-to-download program used commercially as a fast file transfer system by many organisations including the BBC, but it may also be used to gain access to a bazaar of well over 1000 anonymous and completely unmoderated servers containing bootlegged software, MP3 music files, and pornography.

Hotline could almost certainly be stopped by tweaking the advanced settings, but in a mass-market consumer product that is missing the point.

NIS's application and web blocking can only improve as gaps like Hotline and sites like TAB are dobbed in by users but, like an insurance policy, a program like this can only be trusted if its cover is total.

The most impressive part of NIS as it stands is the personal firewall, which may be worth the price of $129 including GST alone.

The firewall filters internet traffic at the packet level to easily block ActiveX controls and Java applets, which are both capable of affecting a computer more profoundly than a web page.

It also monitors against attacks from such hostile programs as Back Orifice and will defend against the denial of service attacks which have hit servers in the US recently.

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