Google confirms Gmail child porn trawl

August 5, 2014 // 11:31 a.m.

Tags: #child-abuse #child-pornography #gmail #google #google-drive #john-henry-skillern #privacy #texas

Google has confirmed that it routinely scans email messages on its Gmail service for child pornography, following its reporting of one of its users to Texas police last week.

Anyone who has actually read Google's multi-page licence agreement for its free Gmail webmail service will be aware that the company reserves the right to scan incoming and outgoing messages using custom-designed algorithms. These algorithms are used, in the main, to build a profile of a given user's interests which then drives context-sensitive advertising on Gmail and other Google-linked sites. Received emails about your upcoming holiday? Expect adverts for travel insurance and discount sun-cream. Subscribe to a gaming mailing list? Adverts about upcoming titles and events will be your reward.

The system falls neatly into the old adage that if a service is free you're not the customer but the product being sold - in this case, to advertisers. Some refuse to use Google's services, seeing the system as a breach of privacy, while others are fully aware of the system but trust in the company's claims that the automated analysis engine never judges and never makes email contents available to humans.

Except, it appears, in the execution of a particular type of crime: child pornography. Google recently provided information to Texas police that led to an arrest after its automated analysis system spotted pornographic images of children in the man's Gmail inbox. The company has confirmed to AFP that the image was found by an automated hash-matching system it originally developed for blocking child porn from its search results but has recently expanded to scanning content on its Gmail and Google Drive platforms.

'Each child sexual abuse image is given a unique digital fingerprint which enables our systems to identify those pictures, including in Gmail,' the spokesperson told the newswire. 'It is important to remember that we only use this technology to identify child sexual abuse imagery - not other email content that could be associated with criminal activity, for example using email to plot a burglary.'

The man at the centre of the case, John Henry Skillern, has been arrested on charges of possession of and promotion of child pornography, and is presently being held in custody on a $200,000 bond.
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