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Google Data & Privacy

Arrest after child abuse images 'detected' in Gmail

By James Doleman

August 4, 2014 | 3 min read

Scanning technology used by Google to monitor users' accounts led to the arrest of an American man this week for allegedly possessing indecent images of children, it has emerged.

According to the Daily Dot, known sex offender John Skillern was detained after he allegedly sent indecent images of children to a friend, an action that was picked up by an automated scan and reported to the authorities.

Google scans users' accounts through the use of 'hashing' technology, which gives offending images a unique ID so their server systems can recognise them.

In a 2013 opinion piece, chief legal officer David Drummond said that while the company was "in the business of making information widely available" there were things "that should never be created or found", adding that Google aimed to ensure that when people try to share such content they are caught and prosecuted.

Google's terms and conditions for using email state: "Our automated systems analyse your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customised search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection." However, there is no mention of Google's servers scanning for potentially illegal material.

A source told the Drum that he was not surprised at the news Google was assisting the authorities in the USA over child abuse images and that he did not believe this was the first time it this had happened.

While few would complain about a sex offender being exposed and brought to justice, the news about the Gmail scanning is not the first time Google has faced issues over attitudes to privacy with its "street view" mapping service accused of illegally gathering information about Wi-Fi networkd and the company facing an investigation by the European Union over it's data retention policies.

Concerns about the relationship between the search giant and the security services have also been expressed after accusations that Google and other companies provided "back doors" to allow user data to be accessed without a court order.

Asked in 2009 about privacy on the internet, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place?"

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