Breakthrough claimed in race to develop phone image filter


5 Mar 2004

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An Irish company claims to have made a breakthrough in developing a system for filtering images sent over mobile phones – technology previously thought to be unavailable or unworkable. But although the proposed system has the support of a prominent politician, mobile industry officials have said it is not 100pc accurate and has yet to be tested on a live mobile network.

Dublin-based Telcotec has demonstrated its filtering software to the chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Fianna Fáil TD Noel O’Flynn, who has been very vocal on the subject of unsavoury mobile phone content. In a statement he referred to mobile phone pornography as “a very disturbing trend” and said that filtering software was “crucial to alleviate parents’ fears and to protect our children”. Last week O’Flynn met with Ireland’s three mobile phone companies to check their progress in implementing blocks to prevent minors from accessing inappropriate content.

Telcotec is currently in discussions with several mobile providers in the UK and has met with Irish operators Vodafone, O2 and Meteor although as yet it has no customers for its product. Called Content Guardian, the software has been in development for the past two years and was formally released last May.

According to Telcotec, Content Guardian has a filter feature that analyses multimedia messages (MMS) such as pictures sent to mobile phones. The developers claim it can tell with 95pc probability whether or not an image is pornographic and stop it before it is seen by the recipient.

The software uses biometrics rather than searching for flesh tones in order to gauge whether an image is suitable or not. It looks for a ‘triangle’ around the eyes, nose and mouth of a person in a picture, which can help to determine how much of the image is filled by a face. The system also looks at light and shade in the picture to assess the shape of the body, as certain poses are considered to have a higher probability of being pornographic. Content Guardian checks against more than 800 algorithms to build up the probability of whether it constitutes an unsuitable image.

A picture that has been deemed offensive is then stored in a database of known images. This would be a mobile phone equivalent of a list of blacklisted web addresses for internet service providers. Such a database would also speed up the checking process, as images could first be cross-referenced against the database instead of having to be analysed every time.

Experts had previously said that no image filtering technology was available. The area of checking for pornographic content is a controversial one, as technical systems for this purpose had been thought to throw back too many false alarms to be workable.

For exactly that reason however, there is a good deal at stake for any company that develops software capable of giving accurate results. With mobile operators under pressure to ensure that unsuitable content doesn’t fall into the hands of underage users, the first to provide such a product would find themselves courted by mobile providers in Ireland and beyond – with all of the resulting financial benefits.

Fran Fanning, product director of Telcotec, admitted that the system as it is currently configured does not offer perfect results. For example, it would probably prevent a picture of a naked newborn baby from being sent using a camera phone. “That’s a small price to pay to stop children from getting hardcore pornography on their phones,” she claimed.

The Irish Cellular Industry Association, the representative group for the three Irish mobile operators, has already begun the complex process of examining various submissions from Irish and international companies but has not yet decided on what filtering or blocking technology will work best in the Irish market.

Although the three Irish operators have broadly, if cautiously, welcomed the new technology, Telcotec’s lack of a customer reference site may be a considerable hindrance to success. Industry sources suggest that there is a considerable difference between running filter technology in test mode and seeing how it copes with running on a live mobile phone infrastructure, which carries thousands of messages and calls every hour.

However Telcotec said it is optimistic of a breakthrough in the UK market soon. Next week the company will hold further discussions with technical staff of the Irish mobile networks who will see a demo of the software.

In the public arena meanwhile, mobile operators are likely to find themselves performing a tricky balancing act between addressing concerns over the issue of dangerous or harmful content on mobile phones and wanting to ensure that any image analysis technology is as accurate as possible and can cope with the traffic volumes of a live network.

Johanna Cassells, corporate affairs manager of O2, said that 100pc accuracy would be essential to any workable system. “For example, if we’re marketing this to parents, we would need to stand over its accuracy,” she told siliconrepublic.com. She stressed that O2 was looking at its responsibility “very seriously” and was continuing to research and invest in safeguards and filtering technology.

Cassells added that the issue of unsuitable content on mobile phones was not a recent development. “This happened when text messages came out. It’s not something new we face today with MMS.”

Vodafone Ireland would not impose a 100pc-only rule on any filtering software but head of corporate communications Joan Keating said that the system would have to be tested internally first before being launched publicly. “If the results were good enough and if it worked with our network, it wouldn’t have to be 100pc accurate, provided our customers were happy with us saying ‘it’s the best solution available’,” she said. “If it wasn’t perfect but customers believe it’s a good attempt, then it’s something we could work with.”

Andrew Kelly, director of regulatory and corporate affairs with Meteor, said the company was actively talking to several technology providers but he emphasised that any system must be tested fully before it could be rolled out. “When there is proven technology that will provide the required filtering on a live mobile phone network, we will implement that technology. If it was there now, we would have it now,” he said.

By Gordon Smith