Tag Archive for 'child pornography'

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.

Court Overreacts to Child Pornography Case

Everyone is opposed to child pornography so there’s never much of a public outcry when a violator receives a harsh sentence. However, is there ever a case where a punishment is too severe or even unwarranted? Consider the recent case of the teenage girl named C.S.

child pornography caseThe child pornography in question is a sex video of two consenting teens, a 16-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy. The boy kept the video on his phone for a year. During that year, the boy posted the video onto the Internet, which his former lover complained about to the police. Soon after, the boy sent the video to C.S., who then posted the video onto Facebook. C.S.’s attorney claims the only motive for posting the video onto Facebook was to harass the girl in the video.

In 2012, C.S. was prosecuted by Pennsylvania’s District Attorney on child pornography charges. Judge Robert Steinberg dismissed the case. Judge Steinberg agreed with C.S.’s attorney that child pornography laws were meant to protect children from sexual abuse, not to punish teens for their lack of foresight. The trial judge also believed that the law violated the Constitution by depriving “a teenager of ordinary intelligence ‘fair notice’ of what is prohibited.” The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed, holding that Judge Steinberg had overstepped his authority by using an argument not presented to him by one of the attorneys.

Why This Case Is Ridiculous on at Least Three Levels

First, it is not “child” pornography if the “children” engaging in sex in the video are 16 and 71 years old. Given that Pennsylvania’s age of consent is 17, the teens in the video were legal consenting adults.

The latter, if successful, would require that C.S. be placed on the sex offender registration, a punishment which would be disproportionate to the crime. I’m not suggesting that C.S. shouldn’t be punished or that the girl in the video deserved to have that video of herself posted online. However, C.S.’s attorney was correct in saying that the appropriate charge should be harassment, not child pornography.

Second, the DA’s decision to prosecute C.S., but not the 17-year-old boy who gave her the video, is sexist. The boy had the video in his phone for about a year. If the DA was serious about possession of child pornography, it should have launched an investigation against the boy as well. Accusing C.S. of distributing child pornography also seems like a double standard if the boy also posted the video online. Even if the DA did not intend to engage in gender discrimination, prosecuting one gender but not the other gender for the same crimes in the same case leaves a bad impression.

Of course, this entire situation could have been avoided if C.S. had refrained from posting a sex video on the Internet. Did she have a free speech right to post sex videos of other people online? To be clear, free speech does not protect people from posting child pornography online. However, pornography depicting adults is a gray area. The Supreme Court has long permitted laws which ban “obscenity.”

The problem is that courts have been unable to come up with a definition for “obscenity.” Simply outlawing depictions of nudity or sex is not possible because scientists and doctors need to discuss and distribute papers or videos about sex to treat certain conditions. Even worse, the porn industry has actually succeeded in outsmarting judges on a few occasions. When the Supreme Court ruled that videos were obscene because they lacked any social value, some pornography studios had the participants read medical or legal journals while they engaged in sex.

In this case, civil law might be a better solution than criminal law. The girl in the video can still sue C.S. for harassment. C.S. is also in violation of Facebook’s policy not to post sexual content. Breach of contract with Facebook is a minor offense compared to a criminal trial for child pornography, but restricting one girl’s ability to access Facebook is better than twisting child pornography law to punish someone who didn’t commit that specific crime.

Should Teens Face Felony Criminal Charges for Sexting?

It’s the latest craze- armed with the latest, smartest camera phones, teenagers all over the country are engaged in the cyber practice known as sexting.  This is where youngsters send explicit sexual messages via text or web postings accompanied by nude or semi-nude photos of themselves.  The practice has raised concerns for parents, educators, and law enforcement officials alike all over the nation.

Sounds crazy?  It is, and it’s even more widespread than you might think.  It’s been around since about 2005 with the explosion of camera and internet phones, and recent data suggests that at least 20% of teens have engaged in sexting at some point- that’s one out of every five teenagers that you know.

Sexting is apparently the “in” thing to do these days, but most kids these days are not aware of the legal trouble that such practices can cause.  In some states such as Iowa and Florida, minors have previously been facing felony charges because laws have been defining sexting as possession and distribution of child pornography.  This means that both senders and recipients of sexting messages could (and already have been) charged with child pornography, even when the image was of themselves.

Most of these youths have been implicated under Federal laws such as PROTECT Act of 2003.  Such laws prescribe harsh penalties such as felony charges and placement on a sex offender registry for those who possess or distribute offensive imagery such as child pornography.

But is sexting really “child pornography”?  Lately, several legislators and even parents don’t think so.  The harsh sentences for teens who engage in sexting have prompted a nationwide legislative response to make sentencing for sexting less severe.

Several states such as New York and Connecticut have been spearheading efforts to make sexting a misdemeanor offense rather than a felony.  For example, Connecticut has introduced a bill making sexting between two consenting minors a Class A misdemeanor.  The bill would not make sexting legal, but rather is intended to do away with the legal network of harsh penalties that has been making felons out of sexting minors.

The legislative efforts by states such as Connecticut have set off a chain reaction as other states are following suit.  2010 is not even halfway through yet and at least 15 states are already poised to introduce similar bills that lessen penalties for sexting.  In 2009, 11 states introduced legislative acts that specifically addressed sexting.  The rationale behind such legislation is that laws like the PROTECT Act were not intended to cover texting between consenting minors or teens who post nude pictures of themselves on websites such as MySpace.  After all, when you think “sex-offender” or “possession of child pornography”, you don’t really think of a 14-year old girl and her latest web updates.

Some critics of the recent legislative activity think that the new bills send the wrong message, stating that such new laws seem to condone such practices and make them seem harmless. They argue that education is a better solution to the problem rather than exempting teen offenders from criminal punishment.

There is a point there.  As popular as it is, sexting can lead to dangerous consequences, especially if the images do get into the hands of a “real” child abuser or sex offender.  And one parent lost their child to suicide after an image of herself was mass forwarded to her schoolmates.

However, as contradictory as it seems, the crux of the debate doesn’t even have to do with whether sexting in itself is wrong, but whether children should face such harsh criminal charges for their activity.  And the general consensus seems to be that children should not go to jail for sexting.

I think that one good thing about the new sexting legislation is that some of them do implement measures in educational instutions.  For example, New Jersey’s bill requires that schools provide information to children in grades 6-12 on the dangers involved in sexting.  Without a doubt sexting will become a central topic in sex ed class, if it already isn’t.

Sexting is not a growing problem but it’s already a full-blown epidemic in the U.S. and other countries.  And it’s probably here to stay- if children’s “role models” (i.e., pop stars and movie stars) think it’s cool to post nude pictures of themselves, of course children will follow suit.  But as the recent trend in legislation reflects, perhaps for the moment laws can only deal with the consequences and not the causes of sexting.