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.
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.