Google Gmail Scan Sends Sex Offender to Prison, Putting Spotlight Once Again on Our Privacy

Posted on August 4, 2014 4:15 PM by Rob Williams

Google has long been under fire for its invasive email-scanning techniques, having even been brought to court to fight its ability to continue to use them. The reasons for its scans have nothing to do with being nosy, and everything to do with displaying relevant advertisements. As advertisements help fund the service, it’s understandable why Google would strive for relevancy, but many would prefer that their emails remain 100% private – computer or person, a scan could be considered to be an invasion of privacy.

While Google notes that its scanning techniques are just for the benefit of the user, a new story today highlights the fact that in some cases, it can delve in a bit deeper should the need arise.

In this particular case, a sex offender sent an email that contained three pornographic images of children. It’s not entirely certain how, but Google’s servers managed to detect this as child pornography, and so the company, as per the law, sent information on the culprit to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Eventually, it was discovered that the person was convicted 20-years-ago for assaulting a young boy, and once police caught up with them thanks to Google’s tip, more child pornography was found.

Gmail Logo

It goes without saying that Google made a good thing happening here, but it still puts the spotlight on our privacy. If Google was able to single-out child pornography, it no doubt has the capability to scan and interpret many other things, as well. For those who strive to keep their own content as private as possible, this might not sit well.

As told to Mashable, privacy consultant Robert Gellman makes a good point: “Drawing a line about email scanning is not simple — no one seems to object if email is scanned for malware, but once you move beyond that, it’s much more difficult.” Google itself notes that its scanning techniques are not just for advertising, but also to scan for malware and spam. This could be likened to a desktop client doing the same kind of scanning, but at least that’s on the client side, not the server side.

It’s a fine-line, and it seems certain that a “perfect” solution doesn’t exist. Well, unless you want to roll your own encrypted mail server, that is.

  • zacharyt1122

    I can’t even be upset over this. If I were the child’s parent I’d be extremely happy Google found this. It really boils down to Google disclosing that they have the ability to scan your emails, and if you don’t like it don’t use the service.

    • Rob Williams

      That’s just it. I appreciate my privacy, but in this particular case, Google’s methods of scanning don’t bother me at all. If it was discovered that there are actually real people doing the scanning, then that’d bug me a quite a bit. But as far as we’re being told, it’s just computers doing it all.

      What I’m wondering though is how Google discovered the child porn now, and not before with anyone else? Surely this person was not the first person to use Gmail to send such material…

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