Mobile firm tackles camera phone concerns

3 Feb 2004

An Irish company has developed a way of preventing young children from accessing unsuitable content on mobile phones. The issue is in the spotlight after news emerged last week that a pornographic image of a schoolgirl was widely circulated among young camera phone users in Cork and Kerry.

Although currently available technology allows messages to be blocked, there is no way of knowing for sure without visual inspection whether an image is pornographic or not, according to Alatto, a Dublin-based developer of software for mobile messaging systems.

Instead Alatto has devised a system that operates on the same principle as ‘buddy lists’ used in internet-based instant messaging applications. Using this technology, young children would only be allowed to communicate with a predetermined list of friends and relatives. They could not receive images from other users outside this nominated list, nor could they send content to unknown numbers. The service is intended for parents of children aged between eight and 14 years old.

As part of the system, parents would be able to use a simple web-based interface or contact a call centre in order to set the lists. The proposed service would have several levels of security controls, ranging from intercepting and rejecting messages, to barring calls from certain numbers. Parents or guardians could also be notified by SMS if their child has received a picture message.

This service has not been developed for sale directly to users. Instead, under the proposed system, mobile operators would implement the technology and in turn provide it to their customers. Alatto is currently in early-stage discussions with mobile operators interested in implementing the technology. Trials of the system may begin later this year.

According to Alatto director John Whelan, the pace of takeup of camera phone technology has caught the industry by surprise, hence the slow response to date in dealing with potential dangers. There are no measures currently in place to prevent unsuitable content being passed among minors and the technical safeguards are limited.

In addition, it is not technically possible to determine whether an image is pornographic or not, Whelan emphasised. “There is no computer system that can do that adequately and it’s dangerous to think that it could,” he told Although software could theoretically be written to detect fleshtones or body shapes in a picure message, in fact it would return such a high degree of false alerts as to make such a system unworkable, said Whelan. The sheer volume of opening up images as they cross the network is impractical, especially as the number of picture messages is increasing all the time.

Last month mobile operators in the UK introduced a code of practice that aims to restrict the sending of adult content to minors through a combination of filtering and blocking. However the code excludes person-to-person technology, that is, sending images from one camera phone to another. Irish mobile providers are in the process of drawing up a code of practice which is set to be finalised this summer.

By Gordon Smith