Gmail Helps Catch Child Pornographer, But Are They Invading Our Privacy?

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.

Although Google has explained this behavior in their online Terms of Service, since very few bother to read them, very few knew about the program. Their privacy policy now states clearly:

“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.”

Whether Google is taking steps for the greater good, or are overstepping their bounds, what is important is that consumers are informed about where their information is going and what their expectations of privacy truly are. This leaves it up to individuals to decide if Gmail’s privacy policy is fine for them, or if it might be time to switch to a different email server.


Jim Ven
Jim V1 years ago

thanks for the article.

James Wilcox
James Wilcox3 years ago

Donna, the term "kiddie porn" is actually used by child pornographers. It is demeaning in that it sugar-coats the reality that child pornography is the documentation of children being raped. I've called TV stations and asked them to stop using the term because it diminishes the severity of the crime. Almost makes it sound like fun.

And you'll note the only other person to use the term on this thread is the very creepy, quasi-pedophile John H.W.

Donna F.
Donna F3 years ago

Google and the Law can monitor me all the time, if it will help stop child porn!! I do have concerns about privacy violations, but I'm willing to lose some privacy to help stop kiddie porn!! Poor innocent babies and children.

Theresa K.
Theresa K3 years ago

Good on Google. I have nothing to hide, so as far as I'm concerned they can frolic through my entire email account and read anything they want.

Leopold Marek
Leopold Marek3 years ago

How is it possible, that with all the spying on us reported for example by Edward Snowden is still possible that any pedophiles even exists??

The only reason that is coming to my mind is, that perhaps they are pedophiles themselves ....

Does it giving sense?

Tammy I.
Tammy I3 years ago

John Webster argues, "Our Constitution supposed protects us against unreasonable searches but not from searches for Kiddy Porn."

Based on all of his comments, and in particular the above quotation, looks to me like we have an advocate for pedophilia in Mr. Webster.

Mandy H.
Mandy H3 years ago

I'm so sick of people jumping up and down about Google monitoring things, if you've got nothing to hide then there's no reason to worry about it. Why does it matter if Google knows you send emails about your friends pets or an affair you might have had ect. People should only be up in arms if they've got something to hide.
This article alone demonstrates that it's a good thing they do monitor things, after all children are now safer.

Leia P.
Leia P.3 years ago


Phil M.
Phil M3 years ago

John H.W. reading your comment "One of the points I was trying to make is that children can and do enjoy sex, and that taking a photo of them doing something sexual that they enjoy, is NOT abuse or exploitation" makes me wonder ...

Why would you want to take a picture of that ? Your comment concerns me and just sets of all kinds of bells !

Tammy I.
Tammy I3 years ago

John H. W.

The fact that you think it's ok to take pictures of a child engaged in what you term "sexual play" makes me squirm. Why would anyone take a picture of a child touching his or her private parts?????

As a mother, I find your comments and you offensive and dangerous. Your words are RED FLAGS waving in the wind.

Thank you Care2 for deleting his previous posts. Keep an eye on this man.