41 year-old John Henry Skillern, a registered sex offender, clearly thought he was being clandestinely clever when he (allegedly) passed along sexually explicit images of a young girl to a friend via email. As Houston detective David Nettles said: “He was trying to get around getting caught, he was trying to keep [the images] inside his email. I can’t see that information, I can’t see that photo, but Google can.” And Google did. And then Google tipped off the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. And now Skillern is being held on $200,000 bail.
To be very clear, Skillern is a perverted criminal who’s perpetuated some serious crimes. Like when he sexually assaulted an eight year-old boy in 1994. And his pedophilic tendencies have not, apparently, subsided since. When police secured a warrant in the wake of Google's tip-off, they allegedly found him in possession of child pornography on his phone and his tablet in addition to discovering messages he’d sent expressing his interest in children. This is all generally appalling and we are unequivocally happy as hell that Skillern is behind bars, away from the tender youth.
But what about Google’s role in all of this? This is where things get a little grayer.
Google has been working to fight online child sexual abuse (important work, might we add!) since 2006. David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, previously announced that Google helps fund the Internet Watch Foundation—an organization tasked with the (we can only assume) rather soul-crushing work of “proactively identifying child abuse images.” Google also works with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Drummond has claimed that Google has: "built technology that trawls other platforms for known images of child sex abuse. We can then quickly remove them and report their existence to the authorities."
But this is all rather different from scanning personal emails, of course. And while the company has previously hinted at pawing through emails with an eye toward child pornography, this is the first time we have concrete confirmation of them doing it.
How’s Google Conducting These Searches?
Since this news first broke, Google has told multiple news sources that it would not comment on individual cases or give exact details of the nature of the searches it carries out (so as not to tip off the baddies to their strategies—which both makes sense and makes for a pretty bullet proof case protecting their actions). However, from previous reports we know that Google’s automatic image search works by comparing “hashes” of images, rather than the actual files.
A hash—yes, we were wondering about this too—is a unique code created by running an image through an algorithm. To determine what might be child pornography, Google compares a hash to a database of hashes known to be produced by images of child abuse. So when there’s a match, it’s a pretty safe bet that an incidence of child porn has cropped up—and working in this way enables Google to conduct automated searches without maintaining a database of illegal images which, in addition to being a visual nightmare, would also be illegal to share with third parties.
Of course Google has made no secret that it scans its 400 million gmail users’ content. And since being sued earlier this year, Google has only gotten more explicit about this, updating its terms and conditions to say:
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.
This is, obviously, all a euphemistic way of saying “we’re trying to super effectively sell you shit by scanning your emails.” The public is very aware of this—and growing increasingly concerned. Matters of privacy and the power of social media companies has resonated even more with the recent news that Facebook has manipulated its users' data (even OKCupid has gotten in on that action). And a recent survey of 1,000 American shows we’re pretty nervous about this privacy thing—and utterly wary of huge tech corporations when it comes to managing data about us.
So will this arrest of a child porn criminal work in favor of Google's sanctioned snooping and absolve the company for its endless scanning? Or do their actions simply raise more red flags about privacy and the seemingly un-checkable power of tech companies? While Google’s argument that it can't reveal their methods as it would interfere with how it combats the scourge of child sexual abuse is compelling . . . the creeping implications of their all-seeing eye remains more than troubling.
As burry as these lines remain, there is comfort in knowing that at least the ones separating Skillern from society are forged from steel and not silicon.