The cussing computer

Warning: this educational software may spew a barrage of obscenities at your children.

One can only imagine the rude words that must have gone through the minds of the executives at Panasonic Interactive Media in the US, upon discovering that their latest piece of educational software was swearing like a navvy at the children it was supposed to be teaching to write.

Panasonic's Secret Writer's Society aims to help seven- to nine-year- olds with their writing by using a voice simulation to read back the compositions they have written. The problem occurs when the child writes a short passage and then impatiently double-clicks while waiting for the message to be read back. They are then treated to a barrage of obscenities from the filter that has been put into the program to stop children typing in bad words just for the fun of having them read back to them.

Panasonic became aware of the problem after receiving a write-up on Superkids, a specialist website which reviews educational software. Superkids urged parents not to buy the program, warning them that it "may shout obscenities at your child". They liked the "cute songs and nice animation"; they did not like the fact that it called their reviewer an "asshole". The staff at Superkids contacted Panasonic, which duly posted a warning on their Secret Writer's Society website and offered free replacements to those parents who were subjected to the profanity.

Panasonic had put the problem down to a bug in the bad language filter and must have been tempted to reel off a string of cuss words themselves when it was announced last week that the swearing was the work of a rogue programmer. The programmer, who wishes to remain anonymous, claims that his action was a wake-up call to parents who are happy to let a machine take charge of their children's education.

"No program can replace the family," he explains. "But people have this awe of technology. They think it can do better than they can. I wanted to wake parents up to reality - here's what happens if you hand your responsibility to some machine."

The programmer was rewarded for this action with $1,000 from Rtmark, a group that funds sabotage and creative crimes against corporations. Rtmark has also previously funded a similar piece of subversive programming, in which homo-erotic scenes were inserted into the Maxis game SimCopter. The game was recalled and the programmer sacked after scenes with semi- clad, kissing men were discovered.

Ray Thomas, a spokesman for Rtmark, says that they agreed to fund the programmer as his actions helped to "raise consciousness about corporate abuse". On the question of exposing children to bad language Thomas says: "We at Rtmark have mixed feelings about this, but this meets our bottom- line criterion of being an anti-corporate critique or attack, and not causing physical injury."

Panasonic maintains that the swearing was caused by a bug, which it has now fixed. "Our producer himself put in a buffer, and we tested it, but evidently we didn't test it well enough," says Elizabeth Olson, Panasonic's communications manager. "To our knowledge there is no truth to this claim. [Rtmark] seem to be claiming responsibility for something they didn't have anything to do with."

Thomas is not surprised by Panasonic's reaction. He says the company is unlikely to acknowledge this sort of action "because it's much more disturbing to customers and, perhaps especially, shareholders, if it's not a random, relatively controllable thing like a bug, but rather the product of malice. It could be that they really do think it's a bug."

Software developers may well need to be extra vigilant as Rtmark steps up its campaigns of infiltration and subversion, with the lure of cash incentives for those with the wherewithal to carry out specific tasks. Rtmark is currently offering $400 to anyone who can substitute the pictures of the Spice Girls in Viewmaster slides with naked photographs of now- departed Ginger Spice, Geri Halliwell. In both cases the goods must actually make it to the shops for maximum embarrassment to the companies targeted.

The most worrying thing about this case for companies is that the "hacker" is no longer an anonymous geek at the end of a phone line. They are now in the workplace, where it is far easier for them to throw a spanner in the works.

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