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It’s Great Google Caught This Child Predator, But It Doesn’t Make Invading User Emails Okay

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google-tip-leads-to-arrestA Houston man has been arrested for possession of child pornography, after Google tipped off police to the contents of his emails. Google spotted images of a young girl in an email John Henry Skillern was sending to a friend. The company then alerted authorities. I’m totally behind prosecuting people who possess child pornography. I’m just not so sure about how I feel about Google taking an active law enforcement role.

“He was trying to get around getting caught, he was trying to keep it inside his email,” said Detective David Nettles of the Houston Metro Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce. “I can’t see that information, I can’t see that photo, but Google can.”

Skillern is a registered sex-offender who was convicted of assaulting an 8-year-old boy in 1994. As far as I’m concerned, you pretty much give up your rights when you assault children – and I don’t care at all that this man’s privacy was violated. But where does Google draw the line? Will they only be tipping off police to crimes that we all generally feel are unforgivable, or will they be branching out? Have you ever seen that list of words that potentially flag you as a threat to public security? What if Google starts policing those (if they’re not already)? Unfortunately, when we start being okay with privacy and liberties vanishing for one person – even if he is a vile sex offender – we have to theoretically be okay with those privacies vanishing for everyone. Are we okay with that?

I was sending an email last week that mentioned the word “attached.” When there was no actual file attached, Google stopped me from sending the email, and “reminded me” that I hadn’t attached a file. That creeped me out. Google scans emails with the implied intent that it makes its services better. The company clearly has filters that tipped them off to Skillern’s content to begin with; I’m just wondering what other kinds of filters are set up. I get concerned when we started gladly handing over our privacy because one bad guy was caught.

“He seemed like a nice, normal man,” neighbor Yesenia Gonzales told the local news station. “Thank goodness for Google.”

Google does warn users in its Privacy Policy that is it scanning users’ emails, and no one – including me – gives a shit about a child-pornographer’s privacy. But I seriously doubt that child pornographers are the only target of this practice.

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(photo: KHOU.com)

51 Comments

  1. Ursi

    August 4, 2014 at 9:06 am

    I’m not okay with this. Unless you are incarcerated you have a right to privacy.

    People who are okay with this kind of surveillance for the sake of our safety and security always seem to forget that it puts us at the whim of whoever is watching and listening.

    If they can do it to this man they can do it to anyone.

    • Maria Guido

      August 4, 2014 at 10:37 am

      I don’t like it either. I know people will say “I don’t have anything to hide, so…” but that is just an unconvincing argument to me.

    • JenH1986

      August 4, 2014 at 10:43 am

      I’m crazy so factor that in before I write this: but what is the whole process? Like if I send…special emails, to my husband when he is away is there a filter and when so many of the “right” words show up it goes to a human? As part of my attempts to be better at my job and to network I send a lot of emails that use words that probably are red flags because I deal with addiction and trauma. Am I on a blacklist because at least a couple times a day I send an email with “heroin” “former drug mule” “history of sexual abuse” “porn addiction” in my emails?

    • Maria Guido

      August 4, 2014 at 10:53 am

      I’m not sure. But there was nothing in the story about this being some kind of ongoing investigation initiated by police. That’s what is creepy about it to me.

    • JenH1986

      August 4, 2014 at 3:32 pm

      Yea that seems odd, an investigation would have involved a warrant. It seems like Google just took it upon themselves to do this. Which besides being creepy as hell, begs the question: How many other people have they turned in for crimes?

    • Véronique the Attachment Shark

      August 4, 2014 at 11:20 am

      Our entire society is big brother inspired. You know those car insurance chips you can put in your car to “save on your car insurance”? They’ve got GPSs in them. Sure, the companies SAY that they don’t access the location services, but what worries me the most is the potential for police to use the info if ever they want to know where you were.

      It’s getting harder and harder to use cash. Companies and the government are encouraging us to use our debit and credit cards to pay our bills, to buy our stuff… Why? Because it’s easier to track what we’re buying. Either to sell our info to third parties, or to be able to see if we’re defrauding the government…

      Companies “give” us consumer reward programs. It’s actually misleading, because there is no such thing as a gift program. Companies use these to be able to track your purchases, so that they know how to better market their products. They also give extra points on certain products if they need to clear them off their shelves.

      We accept all of this because companies and the government has convinced us that it’s worth doing. We think that we are gaining more than we are sacrificing by using these cards and services… But I’m actually not convinced.

      I don’t think that there’s this big conspiracy out there for the government to track us all on a day to day basis. It’s more that we’re giving them the explicit permission to do so, and that they have the ressources to easily to it, if ever they decide to.

    • BREEDER

      August 4, 2014 at 12:13 pm

      wewe

    • Alexandra

      August 4, 2014 at 2:46 pm

      not to mention the show “Big Brother”
      🙂

    • jo

      August 5, 2014 at 8:56 am

      Google has a child safety policy. If you sign up for gmail, you are agreeing to their terms of service. They have an automated system to look for child porn specifically. So yes, of they can do it to this man, they can do it to you too, but only if you are looking at child pornography. People have to know by now that nothing on the internet it truly private, so you have to make the choice whether to use it or not.

  2. guest

    August 4, 2014 at 9:07 am

    Well, Google is a company, not a government agency, people have to be aware of that.

    • BREEDER

      August 4, 2014 at 12:12 pm

      you think they dont work together? i woulden’t assume that absolutely

    • Sherri

      August 4, 2014 at 1:07 pm

      Oh, Google absolutely works with the government, but they won’t give any information on the content of an e-mail without a warrant or subpoena. Or unless they tip off the local authorities themselves.

    • BREEDER

      August 4, 2014 at 1:59 pm

      Even the catholic church and our gov gets infiltrated

    • Sherri

      August 4, 2014 at 2:04 pm

      Didn’t say that doesn’t happen – I was simply backing up your question by stating that, yes, Google does work with the government. Not sure how infiltration even got mentioned.

    • BREEDER

      August 4, 2014 at 2:06 pm

      It’s just part of what concerns people that don’t want to live in a police state and want their privacy rights preserved.
      And to expect it to all be honorable isn’t always realistic.

    • Sherri

      August 4, 2014 at 2:14 pm

      Any rights that the government is infringing upon (and they are, don’t get me wrong) was gladly given to the government and Bush after 9/11 when the Patriot Act passed.

      That being said, never said that they were honorable about it, just that Google does work with the government.

  3. guest

    August 4, 2014 at 9:08 am

    “He seemed like a nice normal man”
    Is this person not looking at the same picture I’m seeing? He looks like an effin weirdo.
    I’ve come to terms with the fact that we don’t currently have any privacy and we never will. Any phone call, computer, webcam, phone camera, security system can/will/does track everything that you do. If you aren’t comfortable with it you either need to get comfortable or get rid of all of your technology.

    • Cruelty Cupcake

      August 4, 2014 at 9:55 am

      He only looks like a creep because you know he is a child molester. He could be anyone.

    • guest

      August 4, 2014 at 10:19 am

      No, some people just look creepy (not all of them child molestors). He is one of them.

    • Cruelty Cupcake

      August 4, 2014 at 10:30 am

      Well his hair is ugly, I’ll give you that.

    • gammachris

      August 4, 2014 at 11:12 am

      If we start judging people on ugly hair, I’m in big trouble.

    • Kelly

      August 4, 2014 at 11:33 am

      It’s pretty fucked up to judge a person based solely on their appearance.

      Do you really want to go down that road?

    • guest

      August 4, 2014 at 1:11 pm

      We’re already down that road. If you’re telling me you have never judged someone based on an appearance you’re lying. I’m not saying “he is fat, he must be stupid”. I’m saying he gives off a creepy vibe and looky here turns out there is a reason as to why. Intuition is a powerful thing.

    • wmdkitty

      August 4, 2014 at 4:10 pm

      I agree with both of you. No, we shouldn’t judge people based on how they look, but yes, intuition can be a very powerful thing and we should listen to our gut more.

  4. JenH1986

    August 4, 2014 at 9:26 am

    It’s great he was caught. But nothing about this is ok (read that Google!) it would be different if as part of his probation his PO put something on his computers/emails or had a warrant or something with google etc. but for google to just do this? no. Not ok. I expect a certain level of privacy in my emails from the company at least. I understand that the entity receiving it can do what they want but for Google or yahoo or whatever to scan emails and flag my account for something that is likely innocuous. And what is that process? I’m sure the word “bomb” is flagged. My boss sends me emails that say “you’re the bomb!” (he’s older, go with it) periodically. So does that mean that the email is sent to a person who reviews it or does it just get kicked up to another filter, or does it go straight to cops like “HE SAID BOMB!”

    • alex

      August 4, 2014 at 3:01 pm

      Sex
      bob
      om
      🙂

  5. Leah

    August 4, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Google is providing you with a service that you pay nothing for and you agreed to their terms. That means they can do whatever they want and if you don’t like it, all you need to do is close your account. Nobody is forcing you to use them.

    Same thing with facebook et al. If you want to use their services you need to be willing to do it on their terms.

    • Jessifer

      August 4, 2014 at 9:55 am

      In fact, I’m sure Google could be exposed to a lawsuit if they didn’t do anything to stop child porn from being shared via their services, just like craigslist was sued due to people using its site to hire prostitutes.

    • Cruelty Cupcake

      August 4, 2014 at 9:58 am

      Huh? This is hardly exclusive to Google and just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s ethical. It’s not really “free” either, they’re making boatloads of money by selling your information, your photos, and inundating you with advertising tailored to your interests…thanks to all the info they glean by creeping through your shit.

    • Leah

      August 4, 2014 at 10:08 am

      1. It is free because you are not paying to use the service. Are they making money off you, of course. Just like radio stations do. (We are the product, not the customer).
      2. All those things you mentioned are spelled in the ToS. If you don’t like it, don’t use it.

    • Cruelty Cupcake

      August 4, 2014 at 10:18 am

      Idk, I find this attitude to be pretty weird. All sorts of shit is spelled out in the ToS, have you ever read it? No one has. No one really has a choice when it comes to consuming internet media…so because I don’t want to live under a rock, I should have to be subjected to invasions of privacy? What about when companies take your photos and sell them to advertisers? What if it’s a photo you didn’t put on the internet personally? I have a photographer friend who saw one of her photographs being sold at Ikea. That’s wrong.

      I really doubt you have NOTHING to hide from the government and I would imagine you would only take this stance as long as it doesn’t affect you…innocent people are put on watch lists all the time.

    • Véronique the Attachment Shark

      August 4, 2014 at 11:16 am

      I agree with you. if you have an android phone, it’s actually possible to look at the permissions you give to google and Facebook, and it’s actually scary what you are authorizing them to do with your information – from accessing your location at all times, to the photos on your phone, your phone calls… We just blindly accept it because we are trusting of these services, and they are free and “so cool”. Notice, I use google and Facebook too! Guess i’m too addicted to care #wtfiswrongwithme

  6. LadyClodia the Modest Rat

    August 4, 2014 at 9:28 am

    I know we agree by Google’s terms of service when we use Gmail, and I’m not going to stop using it, but I’m also not comfortable with this, and it seems like a slippery slope situation. Was he on a special watch-list because he was a convicted offender? Otherwise, who gets to say what’s inappropriate or potentially illegal? If I send a picture of my boys in the bathtub to my mom could that get flagged? And I agree that it’s creepy that even if you use the word “attached” Gmail reminds you about an attachment. Even if we agreed to it, It’s still uncomfortable to be reminded that you’re being watched.

  7. Justme

    August 4, 2014 at 9:39 am

    I wish I had an staunch opinion on this, but I can totally see both sides of the fence.

    I’m glad that he was caught and will be punished {hopefully} for his actions, but on the other side it’s a little creepy that Google has that much influence just through the use of emails.

    But then again, Google is a free service that I’ve signed up to use, so to a certain extent I am at the mercy of their policies. In addition, I am also completely boring and have nothing to hide, so I’m not worried about Google ratting me out….but just because I’m not hiding anything doesn’t make it right (thinking about the NSA here).

    Soooooo…..yeah, this is a tough one!

  8. Wicked Prophet Kay Sue

    August 4, 2014 at 9:40 am

    I don’t know. It’s shitty, but it’s a free email service and we agree to their terms. As far as winding up on some kind of government list, if you’re using those terms, they already have you–they’re scanning emails for themselves, after all. And I am biased, as far more concerned about my government scanning without my permission than a company that alerted me to the possibility in their terms.

  9. lin

    August 4, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Google “spies” with permission from all users. Therefore, it is not exactly spying. Don’t like it, don’t use it. Also, it isn’t like someone is reading all your boring-ass emails. Filters are set up. I admit, it makes me uncomfortable, but I have agreed to their terms, and will continue to use their free service. I wonder if a search engine/email service/social media site had a paid service that protected your privacy, how many would use it? People like free. And if people were willing to pay for that service, would people wonder what they were trying to hide?

  10. Cruelty Cupcake

    August 4, 2014 at 9:49 am

    Not okay. I just watched a documentary about internet privacy (Terms and Conditions May Apply) and it was pretty alarming. No one is safe when we start infringing on the privacy rights of citizens and just because it’s a free service doesn’t mean we should tolerate it. You have to have an e-mail account, a cell phone, internet service, etc. so we don’t really have a choice in the matter. In almost every ToS there’s a bit about how they can surveil users to “prevent” crimes…I mean, what the fuck? Now we’re looking to prosecute people for thinking about committing a crime? What kind of Orwellian bullshit is that? Scary as fuck.

    • BREEDER

      August 4, 2014 at 12:11 pm

      Right on , we sometimes might disagree as citizens, but protecting the rights we have is something we have to agree on or we lose all them. [email protected]

    • Coffee&Cats

      August 4, 2014 at 7:22 pm

      This is something we both can agree on (finally), BREEDER. :p lol

    • Alexandra

      August 4, 2014 at 2:48 pm

      agree. And while I haven’t seen this image (thankfully) would the same reaction be had to a father sending the grandparents a pic of his 4 y o daughter in the bathtub? (As most parents/grandparents wouldn’t think this was a big deal). Is google going to see that and then send that to authorities for that person to explain? Very Orwellian.

    • Coffee&Cats

      August 4, 2014 at 7:21 pm

      I totally agree with you. I’m glad they caught this scumbag, but I’m really uncomfortable with this whole thing. Google overstepped their boundaries in my opinion.

  11. Katherine Handcock

    August 4, 2014 at 10:30 am

    I think before I could decide if I was comfortable with this or not, I’d want to know HOW they use this filter. Does it search for key patterns of words? Is it somehow scanning the images? And since it sounds like the police may have been tracking this particular person, are we sure this wasn’t part of an investigation and not an independent action by Google?

    Honestly, I don’t really consider things I write in e-mails as private – I think of them more like speaking in a busy cafe. There are just too many ways they can be read by anybody – up to and including me sending something to the wrong person!

  12. K.

    August 4, 2014 at 11:01 am

    On the one hand, yes–Google is a private company and provides a service with specified terms. You agree to these terms when you use their services.

    Having said that, I’m interested in where this is all going. I’m not sure exactly what the laws are regarding phone conversations, but I don’t think that AT&T is allowed to listen to my phone conversations (I’m thinking the ones I have on a land-line) just because they provide the service. I also think that in order for my phone conversations to be legally recorded, law enforcement has to get a warrant which they then have to turn over to AT&T.

  13. KaeTay

    August 4, 2014 at 11:02 am

    This is the argument people give about everything even cameras on street corners. I’m the type of person who thinks they should take everyones fingerprints at a certain age along with dna as a mandatory system to make solving crimes faster. I think pulling criminals off the street is more important than your boring emails. Only those with something to hide should be against this.

  14. BREEDER

    August 4, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    Unbelievable, that’s how all my best content gets stolen before i have a chance to formally publish it.
    I should buy stock in google.

  15. Sherri

    August 4, 2014 at 1:11 pm

    I guess I don’t see the big deal: my work has the ability to read every e-mail I send/receive. I agreed to those terms when I was hired. They can also monitor my internet activity at their whim, as well as all sorts of things on my computer. Facebook has access to a whole host of shit that they use to do who knows what with, but again, I agreed to those terms. Same with Gmail, Pandora, iTunes, etc. Hell, Facebook and Pandora tailored my ads based on my browsing history (well, until I got AdBlock and now I don’t see any ads).

    Should they spell their terms out a little better than miring it in the long ToS that most people just click “Accept” to? Sure. But I mean, it’s a legally binding document – would you skim over a paper legal document without checking it? It’s because the users just blindly give these permissions without any thought that they can do this.

    I don’t have Yahoo or AOL or Comcast or a variety of the other e-mail providers, but I wonder if those companies have the same policies? Probably.

  16. wmdkitty

    August 4, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    I’m not down with Big Brother, man…

  17. Allen

    August 4, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    Yeah, I’m not comfortable with this. Also, how does Google decide whether something is worth alerting the authorities on? I’m assuming in this case, the images this guy was sharing were probably damning. But I could easily see how some innocuous pictures or even legal forms of pornography could end up being flagged if the people doing the screening don’t pay attention to context. Whenever a website screens for objectionable content, there are inappropriate false positives (like Facebook taking down breastfeeding photos, or Amazon flagging self-published romance books that have words like “virgin” in the summaries regardless of the age of the characters).

    I also don’t trust Google to limit this to their e-mail servers. Are they flagging people’s search histories and browser histories, too?

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