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The Oklahoma Legal Group Blog

Gmail and Privacy: Child Porn Evidence Sent to Police

Adam Banner - Friday, August 08, 2014

We know that certain professionals are required by law to report evidence of child abuse or child sexual exploitation. Teachers and doctors must report suspected abuse or sexual assault. Photo developers must report child pornography. And technology companies including Google must report evidence of sexual exploitation as well.

Last week, a 41-year-old convicted sex offender in Houston was arrested after the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) received a tip from Google that the Gmail inbox of John Henry Skillern contained sexually explicit images of a young girl. The NCMEC reported the child pornography to law enforcement with the Houston Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) task force, who used the evidence to arrest Skillern. Police say that when they arrested Skillern, they found on his cell phone covert videos of children visiting the restaurant where he worked. Skillern, a registered sex offender, has a prior conviction of aggravated sexual assault of an 8-year-old boy.

Most people would agree that even without a legal duty to report child exploitation and abuse, individuals and businesses have a moral obligation to report crimes against children. Certainly, Google's child pornography tip to law enforcement seems to have put a child predator behind bars. Still, the arrest and Google's obligation to report certain contents of what seems to be private communication raises questions about privacy rights and just how far the government and private corporations are allowed to go in seeking out crime.

To be fair, Google never said that Gmail, its free email service, is private. In fact, Google's Privacy Policy clearly indicates that the service collects information " to provide better services to all of our users – from figuring out basic stuff like which language you speak, to more complex things like which ads you’ll find most useful or the people who matter most to you online."

If you use Gmail or other Google services, you've likely noticed this in advertising placement. Today, you do a search for "car repair in Oklahoma City," and tomorrow your Gmail account and other Google services features ads for area mechanics. You have probably even noticed that sometimes, your Gmail ads are directly related to email messages you have sent. Perhaps you vented to a friend about your marriage problems, and you soon noticed ads for divorce lawyers appearing whenever you log in. While Google may call this "ads you'll find most useful," many people consider it a bit creepy. Big Brother is watching.

But let's get back to Google's involvement in reporting child pornography. We do not want our personal emails to be read, but we do want child predators and child exploitation to be stopped. A Google spokesman told The New York Times how the company catches child pornography in Gmail without infringing on other privacy rights:

“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).”

Sounds good, right? Google just looks for child pornography through "hashing" and leaves the rest of us alone. But where does the company draw the line? Social networks such as Instagram and Facebook have policies regarding inappropriate images, and users who violate those policies will have their images removed and may have their accounts deactivated. A London mother had her Instagram account deactivated after violating policy by posting this "inappropriate" image of her toddler:

So is Google to be the judge in determining what constitutes child pornography? If proud parents email pictures of baby's bathtime to out of state grandparents, will they be accused of distributing child pornography when Google's hashing procedure tags the image as child pornograpy?

Technology often gives users the sense of anonymity. As the NSA has shown us, nothing is as private as we think. Until the line blurring privacy and protection is clarified, it seems that we are deceived to have any reasonable expectation of privacy in our electronic communications.






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