Google explains email scanning in wake of Texas child porn arrest

August 6, 2014

 

Skillern

Skillern

By Jim Hagerty
Staff Writer

Google has shed some light on its policy of scanning Gmail images for child pornography after a 41-year-old Houston man was arrested earlier this week.

July 31, police arrested restaurant worker John Skillern for allegedly possessing child pornography and sending the images to a friend’s email address. The second Skillern hit the send button, Google was involved, tipping off the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which notified Houston police. Police also seized Skillern’s tablet in the sting.

Google was able to flag the allegedly pornographic images by way of Microsoft’s photoDNA technology that calculates mathematical hashes that ping specific DNA common in indecent material. But, it doesn’t happen by magic.

This means, Google acknowledges, that emails are routinely scanned, something the company has been doing since Gmail’s 2004 launch. Google stands by the system, noting a practice among all browser and email companies to track and scan messages.This is is now browsers present relevant search results and specialized advertising to its users. Of course, knowing Google can see everything a user sends and receives can be nothing short of daunting, yet it is nothing new.

Google has been using the Microsoft photoDNA technology since 2009. Today, photoDNA is also used by Twitter, Facebook, and others, in partnership with NCMEC, to track down sources of child pornography. And, like in the case of John Skillern, Google had no choice but to alert authorities. According to federal law, digital communication companies must report child abuse when it’s discovered.

As expected, the system has it objectors—those who question the legality and privacy issues involved in the process of searching for cyber criminals. Google says it is not the only one in the fight to keep children safe from online predators.

“Sadly, all Internet companies have to deal with child sexual abuse,” a Google spokesperson says in a report by The Verge. “It’s why Google actively removes illegal imagery from our services — including search and Gmail — and immediately reports abuse to the NCMEC. “We only use this technology to identify child sexual abuse imagery.”

Skillern has been charged with one count of possession of child pornography and one count of promoting child pornography. Bond has been set at $200,000.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>