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Email Scans Allow Google To Help Law Enforcement Nab Sex Offender

August 5, 2014
Image Credit: Thinkstock.com

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online

Google’s role in the arrest of a Houston, Texas man on child pornography charges has revealed that the Mountain View, California-based tech giant is quietly scanning its users’ emails for signs of illegal content.

According to Tim Wetzel of KHOU 11 News, 41-year-old John Henry Skillern was taken into custody after Google discovered that an email he was attempting to send contained explicit images of a young girl, and notified officials at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Skillern, who was already a registered sex offender after being convicted of sexually assaulting an eight year old boy in 1994, was taken into custody and charged with possession of child pornography, Wetzel said. Once they obtained a search warrant, investigators said they also discovered child porn on his smartphone and tablet computer.

“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,” Detective David Nettles of the Houston Metro Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce told KHOU last Wednesday. “I really don’t know how they do their job, but I’m just glad they do it.”

While Google said that they would not reveal technical information on any individual case, and would not divulge the exact details of the email searches that it conducts, Matthew Sparkes, Deputy Head of Technology with The Telegraph, explained that it uses an automatic search that compares the unique codes generated by images.

Those codes, known as hashes, are created by running an image through a simple algorithm, then comparing it to a database of hashes produced by known images of child abuse. Any match is said to be an almost certain indication that the account being reviewed is home to an illegal image, Sparkes explained, and the evaluation method keeps Google from having to maintain their own database of illegal images.

“Google has hinted in the past that it performs searches on content, although did not elaborate on whether this was public or private data,” he said. “Until now it has never been confirmed that Google trawls information that is not on the public internet, but is contained within our private accounts such as GMail email messages.”

Google’s tip allowed law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant, and ultimately find locally stored images that otherwise would have been undetectable, Engadget’s Jon Fingas said. The case is somewhat unique because there were no websites or other public clues to the offender’s activities – Google was the only one that knew that something was amiss.

“That will undoubtedly raise concerns for some, since it wasn’t immediately apparent that Mountain View’s servers were checking Gmail images,” he added. “However, the activity isn’t a complete surprise. Google’s terms of service already indicate that the company is analyzing Gmail for both targeted ads and security – while illegal pornography isn’t explicitly mentioned in the terms, it only makes sense that this content would be considered as well.”

“With the rate that Gmail messages are scanned, and the fact that all US companies are bound by US law to report suspected child abuse, it is hardly surprising that this individual has found themselves on the wrong side of the law,” Emma Carr, acting director of UK privacy organization Big Brother Watch, told BBC News. However, she also called on the company to make it clear “what procedures and safeguards are in place to ensure that people are not wrongly criminalized.”


Source: redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online



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