Google catches pedophile through his Gmail, raising questions about scope of scanning

8 Comments

Google(s goog) is taking on the role of digital vigilante, flushing out creeps and handing them over to the police to capture. While most people would probably agree with Google’s actions, some will wonder how exactly the company is doing this — and where this will all stop.

In case you missed it, the issue came up in Texas last week after Google alerted police that 41-year-old  John Henry Skillern was distributing explicit photos of a young girl through his Gmail account: “I can’t see that information, I can’t see that photo, but Google can,” detective David Nettles told Houston news outlet KHOU last week, following the arrest of Skillern, a Denny’s cook and registered sex offender.

According to Nettles, Google detected Skillern sending the photos to a friend and tipped off police, who then obtained a warrant that led them to find child porn images on Skillern’s phone and tablet.

The arrest puts a spotlight on how Google monitors the contents of its users’ accounts. While the company has long informed Gmail users that it scans their messages in order to show them relevant advertisements, it has never said it scans Gmail for child pornography.

On Monday afternoon, a Google spokesperson provided new details about how the process works:

“Sadly all Internet companies have to deal with child sexual abuse.  It’s why Google actively removes illegal imagery from our services — including search and Gmail — and immediately reports abuse to NCMEC.  This evidence is regularly used to convict criminals.  Each child sexual abuse image is given a unique digital fingerprint which enables our systems to identify those pictures, including in Gmail.  It is important to remember that we only use this technology to identify child sexual abuse imagery, not other email content that could be associated with criminal activity (for example using email to plot a burglary).”

This explanation is consistent with speculation by The Telegraph that the company keeps a database of hashed images from police databases, and looks for matches in the pictures people keep on Gmail. In other words, Google appears to be running an automated service to detect child pornography — and not directly snooping on people’s pictures.

And, as Mashable notes, U.S. federal law requires companies, including photo processing shops, to report child pornography if they come across it. This means that Google would have no choice but to turn in Skillern once it knew about the explicit photos.

Still, the moral and legal issues of the Skillern case are not cut and dry. While most people would probably be okay with email scanning to stop the spread of child pornography, there is still the question of how far such scanning should go. Should Google and other internet providers also monitor users’ accounts in order to alert authorities about possible evidence of other crimes like fraud or illegal narcotics?

It’s an interesting issue, and one that might come up in court if Skillern decides to challenge the evidentiary basis of his arrest.

This story was updated at 6pm ET to include the explanation from the Google spokesperson.

8 Comments

Steve Madison

No such thing as a private life anymore with technology.

PeoplesRepublic

not other email content that could be associated with criminal activity (for example using email to plot a burglary).”

BUT WHO DECIDES THIS?

Is there something in the TOS saying this?

Jonas M Luster

For years (ok, I am a bit hyperbolic here, about a year) Google has scanned my photos. Every single one of them. And I am OK with that. Because I can head over to Google Photos, see all my pictures (even the ones in Drive and Email, the latter thanks to Google Apps Script and a little hackery), and do natural language searches like “Beer” and Google shows me all my pictures (I have close to 30,000 photos in Google Photos) of beer bottles, cans, glasses, and pictures that have the word “beer” in them.

That’s a feature. It’s one that no one else gives me. If for that Google has to run detection over everything I post, so be it. I knew they would, it’s in the TOS, and I am OK with it. And if it catches the kind of low life scum it did this time, that’s even better. Being born in 18th century Europe meant to be transparent to the ultimate for-profit, the church, being a Gen Xer means to be transparent to some other for-profit, be it Facebook or Google. I prefer the latter.

silk

Google also runs a scan over the contents of the email. I know this because when I send an email about herpes, I often see ads related to herpes. I knew this, it’s in their TOS. They need to do it because when I want to find all my old herpes emails, all I need to do is type it in or voice search for herpes. I’m okay with them selling my private medical information to the highest bidder. I have nothing to hide, therefore, I have nothing to fear. Oddly, my insurance premiums went up recently.

And my dad was arrested for tax evasion. He mentioned something about tax problems in an email to me recently. I do hope those aren’t related.

In fact, a whistle blower friend of mine was arrested recently as well. He was telling me about some bad things a major multinational was doing, in person of course. He isn’t foolish enough to talk about these things on the internet.

I may have mentioned it in an email reply to dad though. I sure hope he didn’t get in trouble because of something I wrote… I guess it is in the TOS though, and it’s not really my problem… except for the chemicals in the drinking water information he was about to go public with. I should probably switch to bottled water.

JohnWalsh

Did you see the video of John Walsh and Nancy Grace? It shows them talking about fear and paranoia. They laughed at the epidemic of paranoid parents and how easy they are to manipulate. “Our job is to spread and exploit fear.”

We need to identify the people vulnerable to fear propaganda and hold them accountable to the size of government and loss of liberty in the future. Exploiting terrorism and children to empower government and media is NOT acceptable. What party will promote fear the most in 2016?

snuggles

It does make me wonder if PhotoDNA is automatically run on all images that go through Gmail and compared to a list of child porn. That’s my guess anyway. And I can’t find where he was charged to get hold of the charging documents. I know it’s a bit too early to play lawyer, but I think Google needs to explain this. If there’s a policy that says “we scan your images for potential child porn”, then so be it and I’d like to think a lot of people would approve.

Jeff John Roberts

thanks for your comment, snuggles.. As you’ll see above, Google has provided some more details, though not all of the technical angles. I agree that most people are likely to be ok with Google’s policy of scanning for child porn — but, as you point out, it would be better if Google was more explicit about the policy.

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