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Notts County Council sprays £82k on PC smut trawl

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As Nottinghamshire County Council gets ready to issue hundreds of redundancy notices to staff in an effort to plug a £30m gap in its finances, it is also spending six-figure sums on an anti-porn crusade.

The Council has so far owned up to spending £82,000 with external suppliers in their hunt for "inappropriate" material. It is using Pixalert – a software/service combination provided by an Irish company of the same name – which automatically audits material held on the selected media, examines files for image content and ranks them according to their inappropriateness.

It explains: "Audited images are presented to the user in a ranked manner. The user can then add any inappropriate images found to a case file."

"Inappropriate", as far as Pixalert is concerned, is synonymous with "pornographic", although speaking to The Register this morning, PixAlert Chief Executive Officer Gerard Curtin was quick to emphasise that the firm had no moral axe to grind. It was up to those who made use of the software – either under license or as part of a managed service – what stance they took on employees keeping porn on their work PCs.

We asked Notts County Council if it could provide a definition of "inappropriate". A spokesman referred to a statement released earlier, but also expressed surprise that there could be any question as to the inappropriateness of workers harbouring porn on their PCs.

The council’s search for inappropriateness does appear to have been restricted to a hunt for porn – with no corresponding initiative mounted against other time-wasting or possibly illegal material, including racist or otherwise inflammatory content.

According to a statement - issued after it became clear that the local Evening Post was about to publish the results of a Freedom of Information request on this matter – some 12 per cent of the authority’s computers have now been scanned at an external cost of £82,000. No estimate has been given for internal costs.

More than 2,700 images were deemed to be "highly inappropriate": that is, to include graphic pornography and pictures "which may cause distress or psychological harm to an unexpected viewer".

The audit was carried out before the passing of the extreme porn law in january of this year, which is likely to have criminalised images that were identified in the audit as “borderline illegal”.

Still, three members of staff have been sacked, one worker has resigned, four were given warnings, two have been suspended and five are still under investigation.

PCs belonging to individual councillors are scheduled as next on the list to be checked.

Mike Scott, Branch Organiser for the local Notts Unison Trade Union, defended the right of employers to regulate what employees kept on their computers. However, he added: "It would have been more appropriate to have consulted with ourselves before taking action and we shall be raising the matter with the County Council." ®

Bootnote

Council Leader Kay Cutts is an enthusiastic backer of this campaign, being reported in the local press as saying: "Viewing this kind of material on office computers is totally unacceptable.

"I am pleased that senior officers have been proactive in dealing with staff who flout the rules."

Cutts, earlier this year, defended the right of a fellow Tory councillor to display a topless page 3 calendar on the wall of his office with the words: "The calendar is not in a public area, it's in a private office, and it's only displayed when Councillor Taylor is in. He takes it down when he has visitors.

"This is David's way of taking a stand against the PC (political correctness) brigade who are so busy telling us what to do. David has had enough of it."

Smut, it would appear, is inappropriate if displayed for the purposes of getting off – but is quite acceptable when put up for political purposes. We look forward to finding out what Nottinghamshire councillors keep on their PCs.

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