Big brother tracks porn addicts

August 8, 1997

BIG brother is watching out for students using pornographic web sites or playing games on the computer network when they should be studying, writes Harriet Swain.

Most institutions have the software to spot when students are using machines for reasons other than coursework and can flash up messages telling them to behave. Some block popular sites which clearly go beyond the bounds of proper research.

But pressure on resources means most universities and colleges have to rely on the students themselves to report their colleagues for abuse of the network.

Paul Dimmer, director of computer services at the Coventry University, said: "It's a very difficult issue to control usage. We rely heavily on the code of conduct which they all agree to abide by when they sign up.

"We can look at the processes which are running but if people are determined to play games they can rename the processes so we can't find them."

Valerie Downes, director of computing services at Sussex University, said the university regularly monitored the 50 most-visited web sites and if any of those were clearly not for study or research they were barred. Students or academics trying to access them after that had to ask permission.

She said the department sometimes ran search programmes on the system to identify people abusing the network but that it was extremely time consuming.

Alan Coombe, assistant director of the computing centre at the University of East Anglia, said the centre ran a yearly audit of computer use in which a team of inspectors visited computer rooms to question students and see what they were doing.

"A few years back we had problems with a particular computer game from the United States and we were very heavy on those people," he said. "We had someone spending an hour one afternoon doing a snapshot of what people were doing and we would then walk up behind them."

He said most students were aware they could be checked up on and so were careful. "They think we are big brother but we aren't really because we usually don't have the time," he said.

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