Safe surfing? The answer is at your fingertips

The technology used by police detectives to match the swirls on fingerprints is now helping to make the Internet a safe place for children. Elizabeth Udall on the latest range of blocking software from Cambridge- based Autonomy
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If you are a parent forking out your hard-earned money for a PC with Internet capability in the hope that it will support your childrens' education, you will want to make sure that this particular educational vehicle doesn't take them down some of the less desirable routes on the information superhighway.

But the standard approach of the Internet blocking software you might use is roughly the equivalent of a lone bollard. A command for your children to be steered away from anything to do with "breasts" will remove access to anything from Breast Cancer to chicken breasts. And this key word approach leaves the way open for those on undesirable Web site lists simply to change their URL.

But there is now a solution to the problem in the form of Guardian Agent. Guardian Agent is unique in offering personalised filtering and blocking of undesired Internet content by understanding context rather than key words. This means it can make very fine distinctions, not only excluding predetermined areas like pornography but also perhaps child abuse, racism, the occult or information from far-right groups.

The technology for Guardian Agent and for the Agentware Desktop range from which it comes has been 13 years in development, initially through Cambridge Neurodynamics, which grew out of the engineering department at Cambridge University, and latterly the company Autonomy.

Neural network technology from these companies is used to match fingerprints for the UK police force - indeed they created Holmes 2, the first-ever national law enforcement database. It is also used for fingerprint matching and facial recognition by the Jordanian government and for licence plate recognition by the South African government. Autonomy has donated this technology to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee to help it navigate the huge amount of unstructured information available from witness accounts to police records and press reports.

"We took the same technology we use to match the swirls on fingerprints and pointed it towards text," says Dominic Johnson of Autonomy. "This ability to understand patterns makes it totally language independent. It is able to judge words in context, as part of a pattern, rather than in isolation."

Guardian Agent accepts user information in plain English. "If you just want to screen in the normal way, the product comes with pre-trained agents. You simply turn it on and it's ready to go," says Johnson. "But you can also show the technology something specific that you don't want coming through and it will read and remember it, applying it to everything on the Internet. It saves you having to read every URL, look at every Web site."

Agentware Desktop also includes a Web researcher and an image researcher, for personalised information retrieval from the Internet, and the Press Office, which can compile a personalised online newspaper.

Autonomy is the first company in the world to provide intelligent software for the consumer retail market. Dr Mike Lynch is the 32-year-old founder of both Cambridge Neurodynamics and Autonomy and is now the latter's managing director. He is still a supervisor at Cambridge University's engineering department, which he joined as a research fellow, and the department continues to be the main route for Lynch's programmers. Autonomy was formed last June and by August was valued at pounds 30m. It now has offices in New York and San Francisco as well as Cambridge and is valued at pounds 61m.

Agentware I3 offers the same blocking technology to corporate clients. Again, highly individual needs can be met. "Perhaps they want to stop online gambling or to block any racist material," suggests Johnson. "Certain companies might even want to stop their employees using the Internet to look for another job." Not so much an information superhighway as some very mean streets.

Autonomy Systems Ltd (01223 421220) or