Sounds invasive, doesn’t it? It actually is invasive, but Google says it’s restricted scanning, meaning that it uses a special algorithm to detect pictures containing child sex images in order to identify those that take and distribute them and those who are prone to pedophilia and child abuse.
This information came to light after John Henry Skillern was arrested in Houston, TX for sending an e-mail containing child pornography to a friend via Gmail. The police have confirmed that they have been tipped off by none other than Google itself, who had scanned the guy’s mailing activity. Following the tip, police have issued a search warrant for Mr. Skillern and found evidence of criminal behavior and intent on his phone, tablet and text messages. The first thought that comes into mind is whether Google is scanning my e-mail and how extensive a scan we are talking about here. Are they screening specifically for child sex images only or are they scanning everything and see my every conversation and media exchange? Google has declared to the AFP that it does indeed screen specifically for child abuse, excluding any other criminal activity like burglary or theft.
They’ve somewhat explained how their scanning system works, too. Google servers retain known sex abuse images and employ an automated system that checks the cryptographic hash of each attachment circulating through Gmail servers. Of course, the decision isn’t left to the robotic search engine all by itself, rather a human double-checks if compatibility with the database of indecent images in Gmail is found and decides whether the suspect is actually circulating child porn on their Gmail account. Upon analysis, we can conclude that this cryptographic hash comparison works much like Dropbox’s copyright and privacy prevention system. A similar system has already been publicized by Microsoft a few years ago, dubbed Photo DNA, and has been used to detect criminal activity using the same system of comparison against existing databases.
Google has actually told you in its Terms and Services that it scans your content and Gmail for the purpose of targeting adverts when you signed up for Gmail, so you shouldn’t be surprised by this news. Otherwise, the company has involved itself in distributing its child abuse databases to companies, organizations and charities in order to help prevent this type of criminal behavior, which is admirable on their part.
The next thing to ask is whether Google should use its ability to collect data and compare information to detect other types of criminal activity like terrorism, racism, burglary and murder as well. I’m certain these matters will soon be taken up by legislators and debate will ensue whether Google has the right to intervene when it detects such things.