Federal law requires people and companies to report child exploitation when they see it.
This includes Google, whose automated eyes tipped law enforcement about a Houston-area man whom the police say was using the company’s Gmail service to email pornographic images of a child.
The man, John Henry Skillern, 41, was arrested and charged with promotion and possession of child pornography. According to the police, the arrest was set in motion when Google sent a tip to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The group alerted David Nettles, a detective in Webster, Tex., who works full time for the Houston Metro Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
In an email, Mr. Nettles wrote: “All I can say is that Google is bound by federal law to report child exploitation when they see it…Google sent what they found to NCMEC and that information is processed into a cybertip that was assigned to me. I get search warrants based on the tip and my further investigation and in this case charges were filed.”
Google has repeatedly said that its users should not expect its free Gmail service to be private. They agree to as much when they sign up for the service, which includes ads based on key words in email. In legal documents, the company has compared web-based emails to a business letter that might be opened by the recipient’s assistant.
But Mr. Skillern’s arrest highlights Google’s immense power and leeway to scan users’ email for all manner of content — not just the terms it uses to sell ads.
Google can detect child pornography with a widely used digital fingerprinting system — called “hashing” — that allows companies and law enforcement to detect known child pornography in electronic services like Gmail. Google said it has been using hashing since 2008.
“Each child sexual abuse image is given a unique digital fingerprint, which enables our systems to identify those pictures, including in Gmail,” a Google spokesman said in an email. “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).”
According to a report by KHOU-TV, Mr. Skillern was a cook at a Denny’s restaurant in Pasadena, Tex. The report said that the police found video of children visiting the restaurant on his cellphone.
Mr. Skillern is being held with bail set at $200,000.