Google’s code of conduct famously instructs its staff, board members, and contractors, “Don’t be evil.” Those who fail to follow the code are subject to disciplinary action and termination. Can the company extend the code to Gmail users? It already has.
CBS News reports this week that Google informed the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that a Gmail account holder in Texas “was allegedly sending explicit images of a young girl to a friend.” Turns out that the accused, 41-year-old John Henry Skillern, had been convicted 20 years ago of child sexual assault. On Thursday, the Houston police obtained a search warrant and arrested him for possession and promotion of child pornography.
Houston detective David Nettles tells CBS affiliate KHOU that Skillern “was trying to get around getting caught, he was trying to keep it inside his email. I can’t see that information, I can’t see that photo, but Google can.”
The Verge reports that “Google actively scans the images that pass through Gmail accounts to see if they match up with known child pornography.” Images Skillern shared “had previously been identified and given a unique digital fingerprint,” so were automatically flagged.
“Federal law requires that electronic communication providers like Google report instances of suspected child abuse when it becomes aware of them,” the Verge notes. “But whether it’s legally required to actively search out those cases is another question.” Even so, Google has maintained the practice since 2008.
Gmail users consent by default to permit Google to scan all their emails in order to deliver targeted ad content. And there could be little argument against scanning to prevent child abuse. But the practice raises questions about what additional evils Google and other Internet companies could choose—or be legally compelled—to weed out.