Google has tipped off local police in Texas, after its systems detected child abuse images hidden inside the emails of a Gmail user.
The revelation highlights Google’s automatic scanning of Gmail content so it can better target adverts to individuals. This scanning system now also seems to scan for illegal images.
Following Google’s tip off to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a 41 year old man named as John Henry Skillern was arrested by police, according to KHOU Houston.
Skillern is registered sex offender who was convicted of sexually assaulting an 8 year old boy in 1994. He has now been charged with possessing child pornography and promotion of child pornography. He’s being held on a $200,000 (£118,422) bond.
“He was trying to get around getting caught, he was trying to keep it inside his email,” Detective David Nettles of the Houston Metro Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce, was reported as saying. “I can’t see that information, I can’t see that photo, but Google can.”
Police reportedly used the information to obtain a search warrant, and discovered more child abuse images on Skillern’s phone and tablet. Police also discovered text messages and emails where he allegedly talked about his interest in children.
Google has been upfront about its practice of scanning user emails. Under its terms of service, it specifically warns that “automated systems analyze your content (including emails)….” It mostly does this so it can deliver more targeted adverts, but it has started to scan for some elements of criminal behaviour such as child abuse, but not, according to the BBC, any other forms of illegal activity such as pirated content or hate speech.
After facing pressure to clamp down on indecent images of children, Google announced in June 2013 that it was improving the tools it uses to fight distribution of child pornography online.
Since 2008, the search engine has been tagging each of the offending images it indexed with a unique code, which made it easier to track such material across the Web and remove it. But from last year, Google has begun collecting these codes into a cross-industry database, to help companies, police and charities to better collaborate on detecting and removing illegal content and punish those responsible.
Google has also funded a number of child protection charities in the past. For example, last year Google donated £1m to the Internet Watch Foundation – almost enough money to run the charity for a year.
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