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Op-ed: Email Scan Sends Child Predator to Jail

Houston, Texas' KHOU reports that 41-year-old John Henry Skillern was caught sending explicit images of a young, underage girl to a friend. David Nettles of the Houston Metro Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce told the station that Skillern believed he could get around being caught by sending those images via email. Clearly, he was wrong.

After receiving word of the images, local authorities grabbed a search warrant and investigated Skillern's house. They found child porn on his phone and tablet, and text messages and emails describing his obsession with children. He also had videos of children who visited Denny's where he served as one of the restaurant's cooks.

Skillern is already registered as a sex offender, as he was convicted of sexually assaulting an 8-year-old boy in 1994. He's now charged with one count of possession of child pornography and one count of promotion of child pornography. His bond has been set at $200,000, KHOU reports.

So who ratted this guy out? Google did. The company scanned his email and detected explicit images of a young girl. The company then contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which got the ball rolling on getting this guy arrested.

This is a touchy subject. On one end, we have a potential child molester who clearly needs to serve more time behind bars. On the other end, we have a company that's scanning our emails. Which one is more in the wrong here? Skillern is of course, but it's scary to think that Google is peeking into its Gmail users' accounts. Then again, Google's actions pulled a child predator off the streets.

But what if Google makes a mistake? What if a father sends a picture of his teenage daughter, taken at the beach, to grandmom showing that the family is having fun on a vacation? There's nothing wrong with the picture, but Google spies the images and sends the local authorities banging on Dad's door. The man is innocent, but his reputation is damaged because now he looks like a predator to friends and neighbors. Yay Google.

With that, we'd like to ask Google just where the line is drawn. We'd like to ask how these attached pictures are scanned. Is Google reading our emails too? Is it scanning all of our images? Most importantly, has the company ever been wrong?

Don't take this article the wrong way; I'm not defending Skillern. If it hadn't been for Google, he would continue to hunt down innocent children. I applaud Google for cleaning up some trash, but I'm concerned about Gmail users and their right to privacy. If one email is scanned, then you can bet ALL emails are scanned to some extent.

“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,” Google’s Terms of Service for Gmail states.

UPDATE: After reports of Skillern’s arrest began to surface, Google came forward and briefly explained its image scanning policy. An email from a company representative explained that every child sexual abuse image is given a unique “fingerprint.” This allows the company to immediately detect illegal images without the staff having to actually to take a peek. This is the case with all Google properties, not just with Gmail.

"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 spokesperson told the AFP.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), based outside Washington, said in a separate email to AFP that federal law requires companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft to report suspected child porn to the “CyberTipline.” These reports are then sent to local authorities for a possible investigation.

“Google has a zero-tolerance policy against child sexual abuse imagery,” Google’s Gmail Program Policies currently states. “If we become aware of such content, we will report it to the appropriate authorities and may take disciplinary action, including termination, against the Google Accounts of those involved.”

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