Google Reports Man To Police For Having Child Porn In His Emails (Updated)

Posted on  

"Google Reports Man To Police For Having Child Porn In His Emails (Updated)"

Google Building Logo

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

It’s no secret that Google reads your emails — or, at least, that their computers do. But last week, the tech giant went one step further and reported a Houston man to the police for having child pornography in his inbox.

Police arrested and charged John Henry Skillern, 41, with possessing and promoting child pornography after Google sent a tip to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, KHOU News first reported.

Skillern reportedly emailed three explicit pictures of a young girl through his Gmail and Google detected them, according to police.

Local law enforcement don’t readily have access to Google’s cloud storage, but police found more graphic images on his mobile tablet and cellphone after getting a search warrant based on Google’s tip. “He was trying to get around getting caught, he was trying to keep it inside his email,” Detective David Nettles told KHOU. “I would never be able to find that…I really don’t know how they do their job, but I’m glad they do it.”

Police also recovered explicit emails and text messages where Skillern discussed his sexual interest in children and video footage of children frequenting the Denny’s where he worked as a cook.

Google did not immediately return ThinkProgress’ request for comment. However, a Google spokeswoman told CNET the company doesn’t comment on individual incidents and that Google openly uses its own technology as well as that of other sites to identify child porn across the Web.

Skillern’s emails suggest that he was involved in very serious criminal activity that does significant harm to children, but it is unclear what safeguards are in place to ensure that Goggle does not release less unambiguously harmful material to police or to the public.

Courts largely support service providers monitoring content for child pornography as long as they don’t conspire with police to do so, Orin Kerr, a computer crime law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., told ThinkProgress. “The big issue is the Fourth Amendment. Google needs to make sure that they are not acting as agents of the police,” he said.

The company is well known for smudging the line between privacy and convenience, and is fending off several lawsuits that question its data collection practices. One lawsuit called Google’s email scanning into question, calling the practice intrusive especially when it was scanning the emails of minor students (Google says it has since discontinued this program). There also was an unsuccessful class-action suit from several users challenging the company’s email reading practice in general.

It’s widely known and accepted that Google gleans information from users on all of its services — such as YouTube, Google+, and Gmail — to build profiles used to create better ads and better products based on Web browsing habits. Most social media and online services reserve the right to scan content for advertising purposes, and ban or remove any content that is considered offensive or illegal in their terms of service.

And even though tech companies rarely report users to law enforcement authorities based on their activity, they have become more comfortable with policing user behavior. Facebook and its photo-sharing service Instagram caught flack for disabling accounts and deleting photos of women breastfeeding or children in their swimsuits because they were flagged as obscene. Facebook also banned a mother for posting pictures of her baby who died of severe birth defects and deformities in 2012.

Moreover, people have been arrested for posting pictures of illegal activity, such as the fruits of a robbery or making threats online.

Update

This post has been updated with comments from a computer crime law professor (above) and a statement from Google (below):

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 [National Center for Missing and Exploited Children]. 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).

« »

By clicking and submitting a comment I acknowledge the ThinkProgress Privacy Policy and agree to the ThinkProgress Terms of Use. I understand that my comments are also being governed by Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, or Hotmail’s Terms of Use and Privacy Policies as applicable, which can be found here.