Google helped nail an alleged child pornographer, and though he's innocent until proven guilty, the case for the prosecution looks quite strong. The nature of the crime makes it difficult for privacy advocates to object strenuously to Google's methods, but there have been murmurs of concern. Google is setting itself up outside the legal system, suggested Consumer Watchdog's John Simpson.
A routine scan of a Texas man's Gmail by Google has led to his arrest on child pornography possession and promotion charges.
John Henry Skillern, 41, of Houston was arrested by police July 30 following a tip by Google to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He has been charged with one count each of child pornography possession and child pornography promotion. Bond has been set at US$200,000.
According to police, Google detected an email containing images of a young girl being sent to a friend by Skillern, who was convicted of sexually assaulting an 8-year-old boy in 1994.
After receiving the tip from the NCMEC, police gathered enough evidence for a warrant to search Skillern's phone and tablet. There they found child porn images, as well as text messages and emails in which he expressed his interest in children, and a video of kids at a Denny's restaurant, where he worked as a cook.
"I'm not sure how Google goes about their job, but evidently they do a good job of it," Detective David Nettles of the Webster, Texas, Police Department and a member of Houston Metro Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, told TechNewsWorld.
Google last year set up a $2 million Child Protection Technology Fund to develop tools to combat child pornography. At the same time, it revealed that for more than five years, it had been tagging known child porn photos.
When a duplicate of a tagged photo is spied by Google's computers, they can flag it without any human intervention. It's not known if that system led to the tip that tripped up Skillern.
While acknowledging that stopping child pornography is a laudable goal, privacy advocates are questioning Google's methods.
"Child pornography is despicable, but there are huge privacy issues raised here," John M. Simpson, director of the Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project, told TechNewsWorld.
"We just don't know what else Google is scanning for and what they're doing with it," he explained.
"I'm troubled by their approach of scanning everyone's email," Simpson said, "even though in this case, it had a commendable outcome."
In the real world, police need to obtain warrants before breaching someone's privacy, he noted. "That protection is built into the legal system. Google is setting itself up outside that system in a way that's troubling."
Google isn't alone in identifying and alerting law enforcement authorities about child porn found on its systems, according to Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"If fact, federal law requires them to report to law enforcement any actual knowledge that an account or message has child pornography in it," he told TechNewsWorld.
However, "they're not required to look for child pornography," Fakhoury added.
Google's automated snooping on its Gmail users' correspondence is well known, so there's a caveat emptor element to the service.
"When you sign up for Gmail, that's what you agree to," Fakhoury said. "You have to be aware of that."
"There's no such thing as a free service," he added. "You're sacrificing something to get that service for free. You're subsidizing it by allowing Google to scan your messages for advertising purposes."
Nevertheless, there are those who see Google headed down a slippery slope.
"No one objects to catching child pornographers by any legitimate means," said Timothy J. Toohey, a privacy attorney with Morris, Polich & Purdy.
"It's the broader implications that concern me," he told TechNewsWorld. "First it's child pornography — then it's additional types of crime and then socially unacceptable content," Toohey suggested.
"You know," he pointed out, "we got upset over the NSA's collection of metadata, but it was the private companies that collected that metadata and made that possible."
John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.