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Wednesday, 31 January, 2001, 22:29 GMT
Watching words on the web
Whispering AP
Careful what you say, the bots are listening
Robots could soon be patrolling the web to track the source of rumours and slander.

Swiss computer company Agence Virtuelle has developed a software robot that uses a battalion of small, smart programs to scour the web for the fount of particular stories.

The RumourBot could help law enforcement agencies track the originator of obscene material, or aid companies keen to find out who is issuing bogus press releases under their names.

Agence Virtuelle is only one of many companies turning to smart software to collect and analyse information collected on the web.

Information overload

With the internet growing by an estimated eight million pages per day, tracking the root of any particular idea, rumour or article is getting harder all the time.

Geneva-based Agence Virtuelle is trying to help people search the web for sources more effectively. "The idea is to track and analyse, in real time, online newsgroups, chat rooms and lists," Agence Virtuelle founder Stephane Perino told New Scientist magazine.

To do this, the RumourBot employs 44 small autonomous programs, known as agents, to trawl the web to follow the trail back to the source of a rumour.

The agents can work out when information was posted and where it came from in order to establish a chain of evidence.

But the effectiveness of the agents may be stymied by anonymous e-mail services that hide identities or webpages that do not let automated programs trawl through the information they contain.

Financial warning

Other companies such as Artificial Life and Computer Associates are now using agents to monitor or manage databases or filter customer information.

Agence Virtuelle hopes the software will prove popular with police forces looking for ways to track who is posting child pornography on the web. Companies who have suffered when bogus press releases about them have been issued may also be keen to employ the RumourBot.

Some companies have already fallen prey to this practice. In late August last year, networking company Emulex saw its share price drop 60% following the issue of a bogus press release. In September, the FBI arrested a man thought to be behind the release.

In March of the same year, shares in Lucent fell 4% when a fake news release appeared on an internet bulletin board.

But many more people try to boost share prices by talking up companies they own shares in on websites specialising in stock trading.

While not illegal, this "pumping and dumping" is frowned upon by financial regulators who regularly warn investors about reacting to tips passed on in chat rooms.

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See also:

22 Jan 00 | Business
Share dealers warn of web rumours
22 Dec 00 | Talking Point
Should your e-mails stay private?
29 Nov 00 | Talking Point
Is office gossip good for you?
01 Sep 00 | Business
FBI arrests man in shares hoax
01 Mar 00 | Business
Online share tips warning
29 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Serious business makes people laugh
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