Google Email Scan Nabs Sexual Predator

Photo by Hannah Gal/Getty Images
Photo by Hannah Gal/Getty Images

Last year a lawsuit revealed that Google has regularly scanned the emails of its more than 400,000 users. The class action suit was in response to Google’s scanning of private information to promote ads. In a brief in response to the lawsuit, the company admitted to automated processes that allowed it to filter spam, promote services, and, yes, promote relevant advertising. The plaintiffs felt that this was a violation of their privacy. The case was dismissed.

When 41-year old John Henry Skillard was sending explicit images of a young girl to a friend via his email, he felt he was being safe. The registered sex offender had been convicted of sexually assaulting an 8 year old boy in 1994 and has since remained under the radar. He has never participated in any of the typical online sharing common among pedophiles and has limited his online exchanges to emails. His only mistake was using Gmail.

Google has long tried to improve its response to sexual abuse since 2006 after criticism that it wasn’t doing enough to combat it. The company has removed certain search terms for pornography, making it difficult to share images. Extra efforts are made to combat child pornography. In 2008, they developed a technology that could scan and identify certain imagery, including in emails.

The Telegraph explains how it works:

“It is understood that the software works by comparing images held in users’ accounts against a vast database of child abuse images which have been collated by child protection agencies around the world. Each one of the images is given a unique fingerprint, known as a hash, which is then used to compare with those held in the database.

The system operates automatically and nobody working for Google is able to see any of the images being examined. If a match with one of the images on the database is found a red flag is raised and one of the child protection agencies such as the UK’s Internet Watch Foundation or the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the US is alerted.”

After getting a hit on one of those images in Skillard’s email, Google notified the authorities. This information was then directed to the Houston Metro Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce, which allowed them to seek a warrant. The search resulted in the discovery of additional videos and explicit images, including video of children dining with their families at Denny’s.
Skillard worked as a cook at the Denny’s and he took the video on his cell phone.

Google employees do not look the images and it is up to the authorities to examine them and to determine if they require further investigation. As Detective David Nettles points out, Skillard might not have been caught without Google’s efforts. They would need a reason to search his email and since he had not raised suspicions, none existed.

“He was trying to get around getting caught, he was trying to keep it inside his email,” he said in an interview with KHOU in Houston.  “I can’t see that information, I can’t see that photo, but Google can.”

Skillard is being held on a $200,000 bond, charged with one count of possession and one count of promotion of child pornography. It is unknown how many other similar arrests have resulted due to Google’s efforts.

After the lawsuit against them was dropped, Google updated its privacy policy regarding its scanning of emails. Many still decry their apparent lack of respect for privacy (further illustrated by them actually saying that no one has a legitimate expectation of privacy when sharing via a third party).  There is little disagreement that, at least in this case, the company that launched with the goal of not being evil is doing something good.

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