A Houston man was arrested for possession of child pornography, after Google Mail detected images of child porn in his personal email correspondence. After Google notified Houston police, a search warrant was obtained in order to find more alarming evidence. The user was a registered sex offender with a collection of child pornography on his phone and computer. He also recorded videos onto his phone of children at Denny’s, where he was employed.
Gmail was able to detect a marked image of illegal pornography inside Gmail sent between private users by tagging images of known child sexual abuse images. Google has been tagging images in this manner since 2008, but this is the first known case where a suspect has been arrested after Google robots detected an illegal photo.
Since 2008, we’ve used “hashing” technology to tag known child sexual abuse images, allowing us to identify duplicate images which may exist elsewhere. Each offending image in effect gets a unique ID that our computers can recognize without humans having to view them again. Recently, we’ve started working to incorporate encrypted “fingerprints” of child sexual abuse images into a cross-industry database. This will enable companies, law enforcement and charities to better collaborate on detecting and removing these images, and to take action against the criminals.
Earlier this year, Google updated its terms of service to include this:
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.
By using Gmail, users are agreeing to having their content scanned for advertising, but it is also being scanned for illegal activities — in this case, child porn. There’s no indication that Google is seeking to alert authorities of all of your illegal activities. While we can’t defend the rights of users exchanging child porn, for everyone sending emails — things are feeling a little less private.