SurfWatch and Net Nanny may be fine for schools and homes, but few people want Internet blocking software running on their corporate systems. It can keep you from making an innocuous inquiry about breast cancer or determining the population of Sexsmith, Alta.

Yet the dark side of the Internet keeps rearing its ugly head, and many companies are searching for a way to deal with it. Stephen Whitelaw, a Scottish entrepreneur who used to write video games, thinks he has an answer. He’s introducing a product that doesn’t block anything, but that can track suspicious activities ranging from accessing pornography to downloading hacker utilities.

To accomplish this daunting task, Whitelaw and his firm, Actis Technology (www.actis-technology.com) first had to create a map of the bad content ranging from credit card fraud utilities to child pornography sites. It’s done by continuously sending out probes across the Internet.

“They’re intelligent agents,” Whitelaw said. “They don’t fall into bot traps, and they report back the information that we need to characterize sites.”

He said his company won’t make the multi-terabyte digital map available, except to law enforcement officials, but Actis Technology is working on a project that will allow companies to use the information contained in it. They can set up rules and policies governing the access of inappropriate technology or information by employees, and what to do about it.

“A company might decide, for example, that it’s not going to worry if employees visit the occasional x-rated site on company time,” Whitelaw said. “But they might be very interested if they start downloading password cracking utilities.”

That access could then be tracked and reported to the employee’s supervisor. Of course, in cases of illegal ############################################################n obligation to report employee misbehaviour.

Of course, sites with some of the worst content don’t exactly advertise that fact. And they keep moving, often existing only for a few hours. The Net Intelligence product uses a sophisticated fingerprinting scheme to identify known files such as pornographic images or hacker tools. It can even be used to track legitimate but sensitive files, such as confidential memos. The product would then produce a notification if the file in question turns up on anyone’s hard disk or even in e-mail.

There are certainly challenges to this approach. Users may apply encryption techniques to hide what they’re doing. One technique that Whitelaw says we should worry about is steganography. This involves hiding information inside an innocuous file like an MP3 sound file or a picture. By dispersing the bits through the image, the information can be hidden almost invisibly.

For example, a credit card number could be hidden, a bit at a time, throughout a picture of an elephant. The occasionally flipped bit wouldn’t really be visible if you looked at the picture. But an accomplice, who knew that say every 15th bit contained a part of the credit card number, could easily retrieve it. Whitelaw said there’s a lot of this going on “right under the noses of companies and governments” and vows that his product will be able to detect this. At the very least, he can alert you if somebody has downloaded one of the steganography tools.

The Net Intelligence tool is in beta testing now, and Actis Technology is in the process of establishing offices worldwide to market it. You would think that with all this digging around on the dark side of the Web, Whitelaw would have a good feel about where the bad stuff is coming from. But he’s actually pretty philosophical about that.

“You hear a lot about viruses coming out of the Eastern block and offshore havens for child pornography,” he said. “But, and it’s kind of sad , the reality is it’s everywhere.”

Dr. Keenan, ISP, is Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary and teaches a course called Hot Issues in Computer Security.