Computer Science Student Foils Internet Filter

year-old University of Massachusetts computer science student, Brian Ristuccia, has developed software that navigates around the content filter, Content Advisor, in use on Internet Explorer 4.0 and 5.0. Content Advisor is a browser content filtering tool that many parents have been relying upon to keep 'harmful to minor' content from being viewed by their children.

This is the second content security filter for which Ristuccia has successfully created a bypass. In August of last year, he posted instructions on how to disable Netscape's NetWatch content filter.

"The (content filtering) software can be a dangerous tool for Internet censorship. Although it may have some legitimate uses, I think the risks outweigh the benefits," said Ristuccia. Adding, content filtering software "takes the responsibility out of (parents' and librarians') hands and puts it into a piece of software."

Microsoft's position is that their filter "is supposed to be useful for parents. It's meant to be helpful to them." Content Advisor has an 'off' default setting and must be turned on and the filtering level set before it is activated. Users select the level of explicitness to be allowed for categories such as sex, nudity, violence and language. After the selections have been set, a password must be entered.

If Ristuccia's bypass is used, Microsoft says parents will know because the password will have been changed the next time they log on to the Internet. Not so, according to Ristuccia, "(There) are two items entitled 'Toggle PICS Off' and 'Toggle PICS On' (on his Web site) that would allow a user to enable/disable PICS without actually changing the password. It is possible to disable the content Advisor censorware, visit restricted sites, and then turn it back on without the person who enabled Content Advisor finding out."

Another reason Ristuccia creates ways to override content security systems is due to their inaccuracy, stating, "Content Advisor blocks only a small percentage of sites that parents may find objectionable." Content filtering accuracy is a long-standing issue with security filtering systems. Filters have been known to block access to non-adult content sites as well as allowing access to restricted adult Web content.

Ristuccia plans to "do my best to see that none of these products are viewed as 100% effective."