Oceanside, Calif., blocks the tsunami of spam

For three years, the city of Oceanside, Calif., has been using software from SurfControl PLC of Manchester, England, to keep viruses at bay.

Oceanside's e-mail system went down for a full day in 1999 because of the Melissa virus, Oceanside CIO Michael Sherwood said. That was a wake-up call for city leaders, who decided to invest $25,000 in SurfControl software.

SurfControl now scans inbound e-mail for virus content and filters out messages and Web sites containing obscene or inappropriate keywords. Since installing SurfControl, the city has not had a problem with viruses, Sherwood said.

The software filters mail for all 1,000 city employees except two, whose duties include checking out questionable sites.

For example, if someone wants to visit a Web site about breast cancer, and the software bans the site because of the keyword 'breast,' one of the two employees can check to see whether the site should be excepted.

'It's more for the employees' protection,' Sherwood said. 'It's not Big Brother. Some employees think that somebody sits and checks on every site they go to.'

Education was 'the most important tool' in setting up SurfControl, Sherwood said, because a few users at first feared the city was monitoring their personal information such as bank accounts.

The Oceanside public library also uses SurfControl. Librarians, sensitive to any hint of limitations on free speech, put up a bit of a fuss at first, he said. But once Sherwood's crew convinced them the purpose was to protect children, they got onboard, he said.

Before the library began using SurfControl in 2001, staff members had had to intervene in online situations that involved 'threatening, harassing or obscene material,' said Brad Penner, adult services manager for the Oceanside public library.

Now, if a library patron wants to access a site blocked by SurfControl, a librarian calls Sherwood's office to request an exception, Penner said.

A member of Sherwood's staff spends about a half-hour each day harvesting spam turned up by the software. The staff also runs a check to see whether anyone is using the Internet inappropriately. There have been two or three instances, Sherwood said, and the employees received time management counseling.

'We want employees to be protected but also productive,' he said.

In response to the California Public Records Act, Oceanside must now archive every e-mail sent or received in the past two-and-a-half years.

'That's why we're trying so hard to cut down on spam,' Sherwood said. 'We don't want to archive all that stuff.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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