In Houston, Texas, a man sending explicit pictures of an underage girl was arrested with the help of Google. After sending the photo through his Gmail server, Google’s scanners found the picture and quickly phoned the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
David Nettles, the Houston detective that received the call, was then able to procure a search warrant. A raid on the man’s house revealed a number of text messages and images that are now being held as evidence.
Google has long held up its end of the bargain in the fight against child pornography and exploitation. They work to ensure illegal images are not available on their search engines. Even further, when they do find them, they make tags of these images. When those same tags appear later in emails, it allows them to alert national tip lines that illegal child pornography has been sent.
“Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.”
This came after a class-action lawsuit aimed at Google for violating people’s privacy. However, this case was thrown out of court due to a 1979 ruling that states if you turn over the exchange of information to a third party, you cannot uphold an expectation of privacy. So basically: if you want communication to remain private, you must hand deliver it.
Yet while many might cringe at the idea of Google being able to sift through what they upload, when it comes to child exploitation cases, it has been instrumental in bringing down perpetrators. More than 17 million images have been reviewed through a partnership between Google and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
It’s also important to realize that while Google can scan all the images you upload and send across Gmail, they cannot turn over that information to the police by simply showing them the content. Rather this is where the tip-off comes in handy. Google can inform local authorities when child pornography crimes are taking place and police will conduct a warrant-based search on this information.
There is also a distinction to be made between using automated email sifters, pinging particular images against stored copies, and someone at Google reading everything you’ve sent. In a statement from Google, they differentiate between the issues of child pornography and burglary:
Sadly all Internet companies have to deal with child sexual abuse. It’s why Google actively removes illegal imagery from our services — including search and Gmail — and immediately reports abuse to NCMEC. This evidence is regularly used to convict criminals. 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).
However, watchdog organizations have gone on to criticize Google for not making these terms and conditions more apparent to their clientele. With more than 425 million users, many have been surprised to learn that there is no legal expectation of privacy when they send information via their email service.
Big Brother Watch, an organization that focuses on privacy in the digital age, told the BBC, “Gmail users will certainly be interested to know what action Google proactively takes to monitor and analyze Gmail messages for illegal content, including details of what sorts of illegal activity may be targeted. Google must also make themselves very clear about what procedures and safeguards are in place to ensure that people are not wrongly criminalized.”