By Maureen McTaggart
Bill Jenkins’ journey from an abused child in care to founding director of Securus Software, a company that produces a computer monitoring package designed to protect children from online and offline threats, has been long and arduous. But there was a spring in his step as he made his way to Buckingham Palace to collect the Prince Philip Medal.
Brought up in a children’s home from the age of three, he suffered physical, sexual and mental abuse at the hand of his carers, and he describes his achievements as “turning the bad from the past into good”.
He says his first reaction to the accolade was astonishment. “How? Why me? But I feel honoured, surprised and very, very special”.
The annual award is given by City & Guilds to people who have used its qualifications to make their ambition a reality. People like Bill Jenkins, who left the children’s home at “17 years and 3 weeks old” – the memory is that sharp - and joined the Royal Navy as a junior radio operator where he completed a City & Guilds telecommunications course during his seven-year service.?
Before striking out on his own Bill Jenkins worked as a salesman for a number of data-handling and communications companies. He says his first software company made him a very rich man “on paper”, but it failed and he lost everything except his house.
It was while working as an IT consultant nine years ago that he became aware of the potential vulnerabilities of the Government’s drive to implement internet and e-mail access for every pupil across all state schools. In his opinion, the commercially available filtering and blocking software was not vigorous enough to protect children fully.
While he concedes that commercial filtering provides some kind of obstacle to pupils accessing inappropriate material, he says: “Children can routinely and immediately by-pass it. Even I can do it in 10 mouse clicks, and children are better, faster and more savvy than you and I will ever be.”
'Our mantra is freedom with responsibility'
He thinks that just preventing access is ridiculous. “Children will not learn that way. Our mantra is freedom with responsibility. Tell children how we expect them to behave, monitor them, let them go and if they are up to no good we’ll know about it and then take remedial action. That engenders trust and if that trust is broken there are always sanctions as there are throughout our lives. “
In 2002 after securing a £270,000 loan against his family home, he launched Securus, which not only filters inappropriate websites, but also monitors all computer use by pupils and staff for signs of pornography, predator grooming, sexual, racial or religious harassment, bullying, gambling, depression and low self-esteem. It does this by listing and capturing screenshot evidence and monitoring text of every website visited - on and offline, saved or not – having been programmed to pick up on thousands of key words and phrases.
"If there is any impropriety, Securus will take a snapshot of what's on the screen and save it. It then sends it with user name, PC number, date and offending word or phrase to the administrator.
“Youngsters think they are invincible but they are naïve. They really believe the new friend they are making on that social networking site is who he says he is. Securus will reveal those who are abusing their privileges and this way we help them with their naïvety.
“We work with a number of advisory bodies including the Internet Watch Foundation, the police, schools and with youngsters themselves who help us learn their language, such as SMS speak, to update the keywords and phrases once a quarter.”
But getting the product into schools was initially challenging. He adds: “We had to prove the need in every school. It was only by showing teachers what was actually happening on their networks - that filtering software was easily circumvented – and that the protection was for them and their pupils and they weren’t been spied on, that we gained a foothold and the backing of teacher unions.”
Acceptable use policy is the key to monitoring network use
But how does he get round the ethical issues of monitoring people? “Right at the front end of Securus is an acceptable use policy (AUP) system. When a user logs in the very first thing they see is the school or the establishment’s AUP on the screen. For a young user for example, it will say something like: If I see something that worried me, I’ll tell someone; I won’t give out my password.”
“Before they can go any further they have to accept the policy and we log acceptance details so no one can dispute their acceptance at a later date. Of course they can decline but that leads to an instant log out. And by allowing them the option to decline a policy that is put together by other people it brings that policy to life. It makes sure it is working and it is a way to find out if a school’s policy lives and breathes. That it is a proper e-safety guidance, rather than something that sits on the shelf”.
The software also monitors school laptops even if they are being used at home. Once plugged back into the school system it highlights all of the activity that was carried out while the laptop was out of the school.
"People are often reluctant to use their own equipment to access things of an inappropriate nature,” he explains. “So they use other people's thinking that if they take the school equipment away from the school, they are not being monitored.”
A large secondary school would pay £6,590 to own the software. In addition there is an annual £995 charge for maintenance, support and updates. The software is now running on more than 1,700 school networks, and the company has grown to employ 21 staff.
Securus’ growing reputation for child protection, means that Bill Jenkins is regularly called on to contribute to e-safety seminars and training courses and the formulation of local government e-monitoring policy and strategies. He is also a keen lobbyist for the mandatory monitoring of all computers within the public sector.
Now 54, he carries his heart on is sleeve. “Ultimately our role as guardians of young people is to make sure they are as safe as they can possibly be and aware of the issues and dangers. A child who is traumatised or lives in fear will not learn. Securus is the safety net to identify issues and give people the necessary tools to nip that danger in the bud. This is such a gratifying business but we are only protecting 2 million children - one seventh of the number we should be.”