Tag Archive for 'criminal intent'

Don’t Worry NSA, Google Has E-mail Surveillance Covered

It shouldn’t be surprising that Google monitors Gmail for child pornography. After all, this is the same company that scans e-mails and bombards uers with advertising for legal services. However, the scans of John Skillern’s Gmail will likely result in a lengthy prison sentence rather than annoying advertisements.

gmail surveillanceIn 2008, Google applied new software to its e-mail system. The software consists of a “database” of child abuse images (only data, no actual pictures!) which is compared to Gmail attachments. If there is a match, child protection agencies are alerted, who then send tips to local police.

The system is automatic, so Google employees aren’t involved in the process. Since Google’s e-mail system is the world’s largest web-based e-mail service, with about 425 million users worldwide, this system is one of the largest surveillance systems in human history.

A few weeks ago, Google’s new software led to the arrest of John Skillern. Skillern is a registered sex offender, convicted of sexually assaulting an eight year old boy in 1994. After Google scanned Skillern’s Gmail, police obtained a search warrant and allegedly found child pornography on his phone and tablet. The 41 year old Houston City restaurant cook was charged with one count of possession of child pornography and one count of the promotion of child pornography.

“Those Who Sacrifice Liberty for Security Deserve Neither”

Pedophiles who thought the “right to be forgotten” could shield their evil online are in for a rude awakening. There is no doubt that child pornography and the child abuse it promotes is profoundly wrong and people like Skillern deserve to rot in the deepest prison cells.

However, this type of surveillance is morally ambiguous at best and outright dangerous at worst. First, there’s the slippery slope argument. If Google can monitor private communications for child pornography, could they also monitor Gmail for drug use or criminal conspiracies? Can the software scan for politically sensitive issues like religion or terrorism? How about activists’ movements like Occupy or Tea Party? Surveillance always starts with good intentions. If the NSA has proven anything, it’s that employees of massive surveillance technology abuse it at the first opportunity.

Of course, slippery slopes are an easy argument, even if America’s legal system tends to ride slippery slopes all the way to crazy town. Google currently has little potential for employee abuse since Google’s system is automatic, with almost no human control. The software automatically compares data, not even actual photos, for a match. When Detective David Nettles said “I can’t see that photo, but Google can,” he was misleading reporters.

So what could go wrong when a computer system does all the surveillance? Ignoring the obvious Terminator reference, machines don’t understand context. Many child pornography laws require that the defendant have a certain state of mind, a criminal intent, for the defendant to be convicted. Suppose a defendant’s Gmail was hacked. Or a virus spread images of child pornography across random computers. Or if a child protection agency employee Gmailed a district attorney the photos as evidence. Google would pick out the transmissions, even though none of these cases would result in a conviction. Skillern looks like he possessed child pornography for the purpose of looking at and selling young children, but with 425 million users, there could easily be grey area cases.