Oceanside, Calif., blocks tsunami of spam

Oceanside, Calif., blocks 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.

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

The city's IT department uses SurfControl to scan inbound e-mail for virus content and to filter out messages and Web sites containing obscene or inappropriate keywords, Sherwood said.

Since installing SurfControl, the city has not had a problem with viruses, Sherwood said.

The software resides on the city's server. The application filters mail for all but two of the city's 1,000 employees. The two employees with unfiltered e-mail are responsible for circumventing the system to check out questionable sites.

For example, if someone wants to check a Web site about breast cancer, and the software filters the site out because of the keyword 'breast,' the two employees can check the site to see if it needs to be excepted, Sherwood said.

'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 has been 'the most important tool we have' in setting up SurfControl, Sherwood said. At first, a few users were afraid the city was monitoring their bank accounts.

The Oceanside public library also uses the SurfControl filter, Sherwood said. The librarians, sensitive to any hint of limitations being put upon free speech, put up a bit of a fuss at first. But once Sherwood and his crew showed them that the purpose of the software was to protect children, they got onboard with it, he said.

The library began using SurfControl in July 2001. Before the city installed the software, library staff members had to intervene in situations that came up on the computer system that involved 'threatening, harassing or obscene material,' said Brad Penner, adult services manager for the Oceanside public library.

Now if a library patron needs to access a site that is blocked by SurfControl, a librarian can call 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, Sherwood said. His staff also runs a check to see if anybody is using the Internet inappropriately, although that is not the city's main use of the software.

In the last three years, city officials probably found two or three employees who were surfing the Internet inappropriately, Sherwood said. He said he doesn't believe any of the employees were fired, but they received time management counseling.

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

The city also is embarking on a records archiving effort it calls e-mail vaulting, in response to the California Public Records Act, Sherwood said. The city is archiving 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,' he 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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