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MessageLabs has launched a service designed to provide firms with a more effective mechanism to scan incoming email for porn.

The managed services firm, best known for protecting its clients from email viruses, has teamed up with software developer First 4 Internet to develop technology which can detect over 95 per cent of all pornographic material, against the 70 per cent effectiveness of current techniques.

Detecting pornographic images in email is notoriously difficult and conventional flesh tone or textual analysis techniques are notorious for passing lewd images while blocking innocuous material, such as pictures of animals or holiday snaps.

The Image Composition Analysis Software (ICA) to be used by MessageLabs can detect faces in pictures and distinguish by texture between flesh-coloured backgrounds and naked skin in order to give better detection results than flesh tone analysis alone can produce.

Assorted hacks at the launch in London sat through a presentation which showed the software did indeed pick up pictures of hot girl on girl action whilst flagging up holiday snap, baby pictures and images of sexy girls in bikinis as safe. But that's not the whole of the story.

Mark Sunner, chief technical officer of MessageLabs, was honest enough to admit its forthcoming SkyScan Anti-Porn service is not a complete solution to the problems posed by porn in the workplace.

For example, the service doesn't scan HTTP traffic, nor will it pick up racy images embedded in Word documents, though technology to do that is in development. That's before we even talk about encrypting pictures.

That said there's no doubt that email porn is a problem, especially since an estimated five per cent of emails contain images, of which 25 per cent contain porn.

The damage to a company's reputation, and the possibility of legal action from employees claiming harassment or unfair dismissal as a result of circulating porn, mean that firms are anxious to find ways to prevent porn entering the workplace, particularly after recent high-profile cases.

In January Royal Sun Alliance sacked 10 people and suspended 77 over distribution of cartoon of Bart Simpson in pornographic pose. Similarly Merrill Lynch had to dismiss 15 people last year after they were caught circulating pornography on the internal email system.

The SkyScan Anti-Porn service will be offered as an optional addition to MessageLabs' core virus blocking service from September, at a price of around 50 pence per user per month, with discounts available to hospitals schools and the like.

Businesses can specify the level of censorship appropriate to their working environment.

Suspected email can either be blocked, tagged or redirected depending on the requirements of the customer. ®

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