Google took a controversial decision recently, when it tipped off the police after its image scanning system for Gmail detected child pornography pictures in a man’s email.
A man from Houston, called John Henry Skillern, was arrested by police for possession of such abusive content. It looks like he was sending three images of children via his email account.
When Google noticed the pics, the company decided to tip off the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Skillern is already a registered sex offender, so the police had no qualms about arresting him again after obtaining a warrant.
Following his arrest, the police discovered further proof about his inclinations, so he’s probably in for a long stay in prison.
“He was trying to get around getting caught, he was trying to keep it inside his email. I can’t see that information. I can’t see that photo, but Google can,” said Detective David Nettles in an interview for KHOU TV.
The fact that Google scans people’s emails shouldn’t come as a surprise because the company hasn’t exactly been hiding this fact. Its Terms of Service was even updated this past April to explain just how the company’s automated systems analyze the content within emails and beyond.
The company notes that the analysis takes place when the content is sent, received and even when it is stored.
The company usually does this to better target advertising for users by learning about their interests. Google was even sued for this, and there’s been an attempt by non-Gmail users to create a class action against the company for scanning emails from them to Gmail accounts without getting their consent first. The latter was rejected because it would have been impossible to establish whose emails the company’s system looked through without causing an even bigger breach of privacy.
This is actually why Google decided to modify its Terms of Service to explicitly mention email scanning.
The question remains, however, whether Google had the right to call the cops on someone based on what they found on his email account, regardless of what content they discovered there, and just how exactly did the company figure out the nature of the images.
In a message to CNET, Google admits that they have been working alongside other tech companies to develop technology that tries to identify child pornography through the web. A similar system is put in place in the UK, where the government has asked Google to take out all such content from its search pages.
Google uses the technology to proactively identify child abuse images and remove them from search engines, but even so, mistakes can be made. That’s because computers can detect naked flesh, but humans can tell apart the innocent from the sickening.
Since people’s privacy is a really important part of the discussion, it should be noted that it was basically a red flag that pushed Google into action.