Google takes down sex offender by going through his personal e-mail

Here’s some undoubtedly good news that might leave you with some mixed feelings nonetheless. The Houston police department has arrested a sex offender based on a tip received from Google.

The web search giant had reported to the police that the person was receiving illegal child pornography images in his inbox, which led to a search warrant being issued. The police later found a lot more images stored locally on the person’s computer.

Google, Microsoft and other companies as well as the FBI use automated image scanning to fight online child exploitation mainly by finding and punishing sites that deal with such content. However this was a bit different as Google was scanning images inside of e-mails for illicit content.

Of course this is undeniably good news and we’re very glad the police had the support of Google in finding and taking down this offender and others like him.

However, being reminded of how much power these companies and the government have to intrude into our personal lives does leave us with a sort of mixed bag of feelings.

Source: KHOU via: Engadget | View of Google HQ image via Shutterstock

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45 Comments

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Don't do anything illegal and you have nothing to worry about. Anything you put online anywhere should never be considered private. If you use any kind of service free, paid or otherwise you open your self up...

If you are that worried about your nudes, I think you can still by a Polaroid camera?

Sorry, but I can't let that ridiculous narrow view slide. There is a direct relationship between privacy and freedom, if you value either, you are against this...."Don't do anything wrong"...rolls eyes.

Great click bait title Vlad. Thats not what Google did at all. He sent off some of his kiddie action pics to his buddy which goes through Google's kiddie pics scanners and this yoyo just happen to sent a photo that their system already knew about, hence the flag.

You can be rest assured any normal person wouldnt touch that email account with a 20' stick.

Just noticed the OP changed the title to be more sensationalist than it was/needed to be. Funny though is if we change a title while making a post, we get warned for it.

techbeck said,
Just noticed the OP changed the title to be more sensationalist than it was/needed to be. Funny though is if we change a title while making a post, we get warned for it.

Ugh... Are you serious? This is exactly what I'm talking about with this damned site lately.

Google should be applauded for having the software and resources available to be able to pinpoint and identify criminals to the authorities.

The trade off is law enforcement gets a few easy ones in exchange for compromising the privacy of hundreds of millions? I think I know where I stand on this. Stories like this are such good PR to further their overall efforts. I think people might be very surprised to learn just how detailed their profiles are...oops sorry, of course there aren't profiles on all of us, it's all just for real criminals right? First it's just a scan for child porn, then I wonder how hard it would be to scan for other things the government deems important...

Hahaiah said,
The trade off is law enforcement gets a few easy ones in exchange for compromising the privacy of hundreds of millions? I think I know where I stand on this. Stories like this are such good PR to further their overall efforts. I think people might be very surprised to learn just how detailed their profiles are...oops sorry, of course there aren't profiles on all of us, it's all just for real criminals right? First it's just a scan for child porn, then I wonder how hard it would be to scan for other things the government deems important...

What if this, what if that? Don't live your life in fear of 'What ifs'.

As with all mainstream media news, I either trust every single word they say, or dont believe the whole story at all. I've seen some movies, where the "bad guys" were actually innocent, or the events were completely inverted by the news media in order to satanize a person, as the owners of the media company's interest dictated so. In this case what we may be -sort of- sure, that somebody was sent to custody for something, and the public mouth were shut via the all-time-favorite child abuse thing. Media can "kill" anybody on the planet under 10 millisecond with a properly written ugly headline.

I have to give credit to Google on this one. Although I don't like the fact of them scanning my crap, I know all of them do it.

Hope he gets sent down for a good long time, or if he`s any previous castrate him! This was almost certainly flagged by via photodna, so it`s good to see that it`s working, if anyone things Google, Microsoft or any other email provider goes through every single picture they must be nuts, imagine the time it would take...

Nothing new really, photoDNA has been around for a long while and you will recall instances a couple of years back where MS banned people off skydrive for having nude (legal) photos from private folders so they wouldn't have known they were nudes without some sort of deep scanning or human intervention.

Google is scanning for hashes of known child porn pictures, it's an automatic scanning for known hashes, not someone manually looking through pictures...

Google needs to decrypt your email contents to check the hash. If they can decrypt it do just that, they can decrypt it to look at the other stuff too. Like how Microsoft manually looked through the inbox of someone they suspected.

Well obviously they need to decrypt the emails to show them to you. It's not like everyone is surprised that they have the private key.

OCedHrt said,
Google needs to decrypt your email contents to check the hash. If they can decrypt it do just that, they can decrypt it to look at the other stuff too. Like how Microsoft manually looked through the inbox of someone they suspected.

They also need to decrypt your mail to provide a functional web service to you... The only other way around that would be to do it like mega.co.nz and hand you the keys but almost no popular web service does that.

One hand kudos for catching a predator but then again , delve into it and then it turns out more 1984-ish . This incident add to the mix the Microsoft Dublin warrant and you can make a case for cloud solutions to be devoid of any privacy expectations.

inkedape said,
you can make a case for cloud solutions to be devoid of any privacy expectations.

You always could. If you want stuff private, keep it on your own box.

I would figure all serious mail providers have a clause telling that if the service is used for criminal activities, they can't guarantee your privacy.

It's really only horrifying if you don't understand what file hashes are. It's like a digital fingerprint of files that you can check against without looking through actual mail content. To catch child porn, they would only need to compare against known hashes of file attachments.

Same thing MS was slagged off for, automated image scanning causing the need for a human to look at them leading to finding this guy. the human element is the common sense check (as in if there's pics sent form you to a relative of your little ones being all cute in the bath but the automated image scanner flags it the human element should back down).

Hm, simultaneously comforting and horrifying.

This is the way we make constant corporate surveillance on what we say and do legitimate, justify it by catching a few horrible people?

Gotta love a dose of sarcasm on not keeping things private in a topic about child porn. Heyyoo...

Google can simply use file hashes for this method to be efficient without having to read through the actual mails, but who cares about technicalities when it's about Google, huh.

Except that Google cross referenced their image scan with their profile data on the user to find out he was a registered sex offender.

While the end result of this specific instance may be admirable, the methods used were not so much. Lets not pretend Google didn't dig into just one persons life and got lucky to find someone reprehensible.

Google is scanning everyones content they can, building profiles on everyone they can and then deciding what to do with that information.


Whoho! Now let's go bash Google for looking in somebodies email! I mean, they bashed Microsoft when they did it, so do it again!

No, Google knows what it is doing. They never intrude on privacy. We should take this as an exception, it doesn't really matter, but Microsoft did the wrong thing to look at their employee's email. Microsoft needs to be punished further for the horrible things they did

mastercoms said,
No, Google knows what it is doing. They never intrude on privacy. We should take this as an exception, it doesn't really matter, but Microsoft did the wrong thing to look at their employee's email. Microsoft needs to be punished further for the horrible things they did

I seriously hope there is a /s in there somewhere.

The whole point is actually intruding on peoples privacy. It don't matter who the person is. Google scans your email for advertising purposes. It doesn't matter what purpose they scan your email for.... It's invading in to your privacy. Now if Gmail had a definition file like a virus scanner that reacts to illegal doings then maybe I would accept this.

jesseinsf said,
The whole point is actually intruding on peoples privacy. It don't matter who the person is. Google scans your email for advertising purposes. It doesn't matter what purpose they scan your email for.... It's invading in to your privacy. Now if Gmail had a definition file like a virus scanner that reacts to illegal doings then maybe I would accept this.

Pull the other one, this is exactly what Google scanning your inbox is like, it's exactly like a virus definition. It looks for key words and phrases and sets up the ads to react to this. No personal information is given away, no privacy is breached.

If you don't like it then go for one of those email providers that sell their services as "Private and secure" but be prepared to be disappointed when you find out they're no more private and secure than the major players.

MikeChipshop said,

Pull the other one, this is exactly what Google scanning your inbox is like, it's exactly like a virus definition. It looks for key words and phrases and sets up the ads to react to this. No personal information is given away, no privacy is breached.

If you don't like it then go for one of those email providers that sell their services as "Private and secure" but be prepared to be disappointed when you find out they're no more private and secure than the major players.

If no privacy is breached, please explain this news item.

Studio384 said,
If no privacy is breached, please explain this news item.

The same process that scan your inbox for keywords to allow advertising also scanned for known child porn images. No privacy was breached.

Studio384 said,
If no privacy is breached, please explain this news item.

A scan designed to detect these kind of images and thats how they were found. Then when images were reviled from the auto scan, a warrant was issued and someone physically looked at the data. A little different from when MS physically looked at a users email they were tipped off on and never got a search warrant.

Now, with that said, how stupid do you have to be to use a known service, who searched emails to display adds, put this kind of data in their email?

See bithush's post below:

bithush said,
Nah your nudes are pretty safe. Law enforcement have a big list of known, commonly traded child pornography which they give to Google, Microsoft, etc. to automatically detect. Similar to an SHA-1 sum but with some flexibility to handle things such as slight changes, cropping, resize, etc. The technology was developed by Microsoft and gifted to the law enforcement world. You can check more info out on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PhotoDNA

Google do not want pictures of naked abused children on their servers. They have every right to scan for this kind of content & report the people distributing it.

frett said,

I seriously hope there is a /s in there somewhere.

Having such a poor /s meter that you need the person to write it on every /s comment

New to reading?

Studio384 said,
Whoho! Now let's go bash Google for looking in somebodies email! I mean, they bashed Microsoft when they did it, so do it again!

Give it a minute, I'm sure someone will come up with some rationale that will explain it away. ^^

Sandor said,

Having such a poor /s meter that you need the person to write it on every /s comment

New to reading?

Ikr!!! That was the most blatantly sarcastic comment I've ever seen. Even if he commented back trying to assure us he was serious about Google being a privacy-respectful company, I'd still think it was a sarcastic comment.

Studio384 said,
Whoho! Now let's go bash Google for looking in somebodies email! I mean, they bashed Microsoft when they did it, so do it again!

Even Helen Keller could tell you didn't read the article. What Microsoft did was much worse than a computer checking for kiddie pics.

While im glad they caught this guy, and can catch others. It probably means they are constantly looking at our nude pics that we send to everyone.... ha

oh well, should never expect privacy, especially with google.

Nah your nudes are pretty safe. Law enforcement have a big list of known, commonly traded child pornography which they give to Google, Microsoft, etc. to automatically detect. Similar to an SHA-1 sum but with some flexibility to handle things such as slight changes, cropping, resize, etc. The technology was developed by Microsoft and gifted to the law enforcement world. You can check more info out on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PhotoDNA

bithush said,
Nah your nudes are pretty safe. Law enforcement have a big list of known, commonly traded child pornography which they give to Google, Microsoft, etc. to automatically detect. Similar to an SHA-1 sum but with some flexibility to handle things such as slight changes, cropping, resize, etc. The technology was developed by Microsoft and gifted to the law enforcement world. You can check more info out on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PhotoDNA

Yup. This is a little different, since they're essentially scanning their customer base for known hashes (they're scanning your emails anyway for ads), then reporting positives. What MS did a while ago was go into a mailbox without having specific fingerprints to look for, and instead looking at everything to see if something turns up. MS and others also use the child porn detection and it's an international collaboration between a whole bunch of companies and law enforcement agencies.