Security

Geek Trivia: What English town is infamous for its role in testing early profanity filters?

There's a computer security term for sorting issues involving dangerous plaintext words. The term is named after an English township that famously ran afoul of some early online profanity filters.

Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire, England is an industrial town in eastern central Britain known for its metalworks. However, in computer security circles, it's the namesake of the Scunthorpe Problem, a phenomenon where computer language filters are befuddled by widespread false positives, rendering the filter (and often the system it's defending) useless.

The origin of the Scunthorpe Problem can be traced to 1996, when a number of Scunthorpe residents were suddenly unable to enroll as new customers for America Online's Internet service. AOL's profanity filter mistook the second through fifth letters of the word Scunthorpe for what Captain Kirk would describe as a colorful metaphor and the US Federal Communications Commission would describe as a finable offense if uttered over broadcast airwaves.

The Scunthorpe Problem isn't limited, however, to variations on George Carlin's infamous Seven Dirty Words You Can't Say on Television. The existence of medireview illustrates how even non-profane words can be mistaken for threatening terms by crudely designed language filters. While profanity filters have matured — pun intended — to the point they avoid false positives for most common curse words, the rise of crude spam filters has caused the Scunthorpe Problem to evolve. For example, attempting to block spam messages for the drug Cialis can result in any use of the word specialist being banned.

The need for a Semantic Web has never been clearer. Until computers can tell the difference between bank, the place where I keep my money, and bank, the side of a river (these are, in fact, two separate places), the Scunthorpe Problem will always be with us.

That's not just some infuriating English-language interpolation, it's an etymologically excellent example of Geek Trivia.

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About

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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