Is Google the New Sheriff in Town?

First there was Google Maps, then there was Google Books, and then there was Google Glass. Now, apparently, there’s Google Cops. Last Wednesday, police in Houston, Texas announced the arrest of 41-year-old John Henry Skillern on the charges of possessing child pornography. How the police found out about what Skillern was up to might surprise you. Google, using one of its many algorithms, discovered that he was using Gmail to send child porn to friends. The company then alerted the cops, who got a warrant, found the porn on Skillern’s computer, and arrested him.

Now, there’s no question that what John Henry Skillern is accused of doing is disgusting, immoral, and very, very illegal. If he’s found guilty, he deserves whatever punishment the court sees fit to give him. But still, the fact that Google acted essentially as an arm of law enforcement here is pretty disturbing, and it raises some big questions about privacy and security in a world where pretty much everyone communicates on some sort of digital platform.

After all, while we can all agree that child porn is a bad thing, what would we say if Google tipped off the cops that Skillern was cheating on his wife? Believe it or not, adultery is still technically illegal, as in "against the law," in 23 states, including liberal ones like Massachusetts and New York. In Idaho and Oklahoma adultery is actually considered a felony.

Of course, the idea that Google could soon start calling the cops on cheating spouses does sound a little ridiculous. But who’s to say, now that Google has become an arm of law enforcement, how long that arm will reach? I mean, can we really trust a giant transnational corporation to have our best interests at heart?

Think of it this way. If Google is reading your email to see if you’re sending child porn, what’s to stop it from also reading your email to see if you’re doing something that’s much more morally ambiguous, something like buying and selling marijuana? And what’s to stop it from reading your email to see if you’re organizing a protest against Wall Street bankers, and then tipping off the cops about that protest?

The technical capability is there for Google to do both of those things, and once you open the door to it or any other internet company acting like law enforcement, anything is possible. When it comes to child porn and terrorism, most people are pretty willing to throw constitutional or privacy concerns out the window. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is open to debate, and but it’s still a debate we should be having.

In today’s brave new world of instant communication and digital connection, there’s a huge potential for good. There’s also a huge potential for bad. Products created by companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are a boon to anyone looking to organize, protest, or do any of the things that keep our democracy healthy.

Ultimately, however, companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are looking out only for themselves and their shareholders, not “We the People.”

Yes, they technically have to worry about us because we’re their customer base, but given the level of cooperation between Silicon Valley and the NSA over the PRISM program, it’s clear that “We the People” are not the only thing companies like Google care about. When you’re a big tech giant trying to do anything to stay on top, you need to have a good relationship with the powers that be. If that means sacrificing your customer’s privacy to stay in the good graces of the government, then so be it.

Obviously, our government doesn’t do a great job of respecting the privacy of Americans either. But the difference between a private corporation like Google and a government agency like the Post Office is that the Post Office is ultimately answerable to “We the People.” It’s a public agency that is subject to oversight and regulation by Congress, and can't open your mail without a warrant issued by a judge.

We can debate all we want about whether or not Congress is doing a good job of regulating the Post Office, but the potential for checks and balances is still there. That’s what makes the idea of Google acting like law enforcement so scary. Although Google would say that they're merely complying with the law - Congress did pass a mandatory reporting requirement for companies that discover child porn - we really have no way of keeping our email providers in check unless they're the Post Office.

There are really only two big solutions to this problem, and the first one is obvious: Stop using Gmail and start using an email service that cares about privacy. The biggest problem with that is that the companies that did offer secure email - used by Edward Snowden, among others - went out of business and destroyed their servers to avoid a subpoena from US law enforcement.

The second solution is a little more complicated, but still has big potential. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed letting the Postal Service offer banking services. I think we should start letting it offer email services.

By federal law, the Post Office isn’t allowed to open any mail sent First Class or higher without a warrant issued by a judge in compliance with the 4th Amendment's privacy protections. If we let the Postal Service run an email service, we could extend those privacy protections to all electronic messages.

Back in the 18th century, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed a type of prison called a panopticon, which would allow one guard to see what every prisoner was doing without those prisoners knowing they were being spied on. Today, thanks to the internet, the panopticon is as close to reality as ever. For now, at least, this has helped catch pedophiles like John Skillern, but there’s really no way to tell where it will lead next.

Again, once you open the door, anything is possible, good or bad. We need to have a serious debate about this before the power of tech giants to act like law enforcement gets way out of control.


stecoop01's picture
stecoop01 9 years 45 weeks ago

I quit YouTube when they started requiring that I have a Google account. I will NEVER have a Google account. I won't even use google maps; I use yahoo maps. And the old fashoined ones, you know, printed on actual paper!

Note to Thom or his webmaster: Would you please ask your advertisers to not display pictures of toe nail fungus. That's really gross...and I have to look at while I'm typing this message. Yech!!!

leighmf's picture
leighmf 9 years 45 weeks ago

Does anyone think Homeland Security doesn't monitor Google along with everything else?

I think Google lawyers were warding off possible liability. The algorithms are supposed to keep the search engine useful to searchers, not criminals and search engine cheat-hogs. Plus, reporting slave trading, domestic abuse, and child exploitation is a community responsibility.

The internet has opened new avenues of dangers and addictions to kids and there has to be a line drawn.

If you have a birth certificate, driver's license, state i.d., utlility bill, have been to a hospital, filled a prescription, paid taxes, or applied for credit, they know who you are.

goat-on-a-stick's picture
goat-on-a-stick 9 years 45 weeks ago

I can see the conservatives response already:

"Would you rather pedophiles go unpunished?"

As much as we should be asking how much gmail is actually snooping on our emails, the majority of Americans sacrificing their freedoms for slight security to make rare catches like this simply enforces their compliance with the status-quo.

leighmf's picture
leighmf 9 years 45 weeks ago

If you want to harp on lousy bad trans-national corporations, try Pepsico, Firestone, and Bush Liberia.

No one forces Americans to use g-mail and g-mail is a free service offered to glean consumers for marketing. G-mail is not a constitutional privilege and does not warranty privacy.

If a cashier is given a counterfeit bill what happens? They call the police, and if it was a bill someone slipped to you, you won't be re-imbursed. Is the cashier acting as an arm of the law?

If you get the license number of a hit and run vehicle, or a drive-by massacre, are you overstepping by calling the police?

Why, a car salesman might even cut your credit card in half when he sees your defaulted student loans. What is that?

I have been at kid parties at franchise party places and there were employed watch people in every room to prevent predation or kidnapping.

Children, the weak, and the helpless are entitled to protection from predators. It is ridiculous to prattle about G-mail, which everyone should know is NOT private, when kids are getting stolen, sold, raped, tortured, imprisoned, and used for experiments or the games of perverts.

chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 9 years 45 weeks ago

leighmf -- Are you suggesting the post office open all 1st class mail to find child pornograpers?

Palindromedary's picture
Palindromedary 9 years 45 weeks ago

Change your passwords, Kiddies! The bad old Russians have allegedly stolen 1.2 billion passwords and usernames in an internet heist affecting 420,000 web sites. But, it's probably just the CIA doing the hacking and then posing as bad old Russians as a way of the old "wagging-the-dog" ploy. This is probably just the propaganda to add to the lies they are telling us about Russia or the separatists shooting down MH17 when in fact is was the US backed Ukrainians who did the dirty deed. Right now, they believe that they have to be very, very down on the Russians and this bit of propaganda (true or not) is part of the game of hegemony by the US.

By the way, you can't have true freedom of speech or of the press if you start picking it apart with things you personally believe is appalling. One day, in the future, the police may very well be coming after the pornographers who peddle the biblical smut as well....smut that one day will be considered "disgusting, immoral, and very, very illegal".

xs10shal's picture
xs10shal 9 years 45 weeks ago

Yeah so what is your point other than what most everyone, including Mr. Hartman, already agrees with; child pornography is bad. This is not about child pornography, it is about private email companies reading your emails and acting as Big Brother. If they reported that you didn't claim payment received for overhauling your neighbor's yard on your tax return, how would you feel about that. Or if you said you could just kill your sister for dating your boss and they made you a suspect in assault, how would you feel about that, when you had nothing to do with it?

The issue is corporations monitoring your communication and reporting to law enforcement, not porn...get with the discussion.

leighmf's picture
leighmf 9 years 45 weeks ago

Once again, we are off-topic with a fantastical extreme generalization, supposing the Post Office would "open all 1st class mail."

I didn't say or suggest anything about the post office. I said - G-MAIL is free to use. But, it does belong to Google. Google has to be responsible, and if something atrocious happened, the public would rage against them for not stopping it. We all know cell phones, land lines, restaurant conversations, and internet communications are not private.

I use a "burn phone." The last time I bought stamps for my private mail at the USPS they were $.43@.

Not one place in either of my posts did I mention The Post Office. However, now that you bring it up, we are required to sign papers that packages we are mailing do not contain contraband, including kiddie porn, anthrax, cash, and ricin- there is a long list of it.

If the Post Office has good reason to suspect contraband, the Squat Team will be there with bells on. Employees are also allowed to use their noses, feelers, and common sense- it is not necessary to open a package for a P.O. to call it suspicious and bring in the feds.

In this case, an algorithmic filter, not a human snooper, flagged a bad apple, and it was right. Google did not make the arrest, but they were obligated to call law enforcement.

Further, had the executives at J.P. Morgan Chase in the WTC listened to their risk analyst, Indira Singh, weeks ahead of the atttack, about all the red flags P-Tech software filters generated on her computer screen, there would have been Law Enforcement in the Towers way ahead of the disaster. Instead, in her Senate testimony, Ms. Singh described how she was told to ignore the red flags (all concerning suspicious cash transfers). When she insisted there were problems, the P-Tech Consultants were brought in and she was silenced, only to then lose hundreds of her friends and co-workers in the disaster, barely making it out to tell the story.

These 9-11 red flags appeared as a result of the same type of screening procedures used for monitoring predators on the internet. Where CHILDREN are concerned there should be no question as to whether a corporation has the right to let police decide if a predator is using their services to lure, damage or kill them.

PS- I think when you open a G-Mail account the Terms of Use prohibit a number of behaviors, including pedophilia. You agree to the the terms. The company has a right to know, and a responsibility to monitor what it is harboring.

Do we have the right to look for a rat's nest if our security system wires are being eaten? Then what, do we tell the rats to leave, or call an animal removal expert?

leighmf's picture
leighmf 9 years 45 weeks ago

Here's my point-

You do not have to wear a seat belt, but it is the law. I am not going to call the highway patrol on my cell phone when I see you without your seatbelt, only when I see your head through the windshield.

I don't recall any of those "supposed" outlandish occurrences you mentioned ever taking place, however this child porn occurrence is real.

Imaginary "what ifs?" are not "issues."

You do not have to use corporation e-mail for privacy, and if the service belongs to the corporation how is it any of your business? Sell your stock. We have bigger problems than G-MAIL filtering.

Get with American History...

Kend's picture
Kend 9 years 45 weeks ago

"Would you rather see pedophiles go unpunished"

well would you?

well said Leigh.

mathboy's picture
mathboy 9 years 45 weeks ago

Google didn't act as police, it acted as an observing bystander.

And what Google was checking for in the e-mail is contraband itself, not a mere mention of an illegal act. That's like having a bomb-sniffing dog.

The algorithm checks e-mailed images against known images of child pornography supplied by police. Ironically, this means that Google must possess its own huge cache of it. If that corporation were a person, we'd be upset.

LeighMF, I think you mean "SWAT" team, not "Squat Team", unless there's a joke I'm missing.

BTW, I love the story from a year or so ago, wherein a child pornographer sent or posted a picture of himself, with his face swirled. All the FBI had to do was unswirl his face.

PixelPusher's picture
PixelPusher 9 years 45 weeks ago

I think Google had to act in this case. Isn't it the law now that ISPs can be held responcible for the data that their customers move through their systems? Granted it is a supremely stupid law, given the way data moves through the Internet, but it has been used by the Feds to go after internet companies.

DAnneMarc's picture
DAnneMarc 9 years 45 weeks ago

Leighmf ~ You make a very good point. This is a free service that is compensated by gathering information. It also is above board by stating it's policies directly in the service agreement that everyone agrees to before using it-- whether they read it or not. Also, this type of compromise of privacy opens the doors for many entrepreneurs to circumnavigate it. It opens the doors for other email carriers who offer private service for a fee. It also opens the doors for security software that can encrypt messages for a monthly fee. The possibilities for creative entrepreneurs is endless whenever needs arise in society. Let the free market decide which privacy policy is better. Privacy from the government is guaranteed in the Fourth Amendment, however, that document only applies to the federal government and not private corporations. Private corporations should be free to offer their products and services as they wish. The only authority they should have to bow down to is the authority of their customers.

The only objection that I have is if any of these other potential private email services are intimidated--or in any other way forced--by the government to violate our Fourth Amendment rights after complete privacy is offered in the service agreement and mutually agreed upon in writing. I also have a problem with the government forcing any company to covertly turn over any confidential information without the consent of their customers. There is a thin line here where the Fourth Amendment might be crossed and that is a line I cannot see crossed for any reason. As much as I personally despise child predators, the clear and present danger to society represented by an unrestricted government predator is a much greater threat. As President Kennedy once said, "What value is there in insuring that our society survives if it's traditions do not survive with it." It is foolish to sacrifice liberty for security; however, if someone desires to sacrifice their privacy for a monetary savings in a free market, they certainly should be at liberty to do so. There is nothing in the constitution forbidding foolishness.

DAnneMarc's picture
DAnneMarc 9 years 45 weeks ago
Quote Kend:"Would you rather see pedophiles go unpunished"

Kend ~ This is child pornography pedalers; not child molesters. A very big difference. Some might argue that pornography to one extent or another prevents or mitigates sex crimes. Some may argue the reverse. As exploitative and abusive as child porn is, it still takes a back seat to child molestation.

If you want to see pedophiles go unpunished you need look no further than the Roman Catholic Church. No one had to violate the Fourth Amendment to learn about the countless cases of priest pedophilia; yet, they all walked away free and clear with immunity, didn't they? Pedalers of child porn can be brought to justice without sacrificing everyone's Fourth Amendment rights too. Prisons are already full of them. Just check the National Sex Offenders List web site. These people were all caught within the law. Now there are over one thousand of them living in walking distance to my house alone. A fat lot of good their arrest did the rest of us.

stecoop01's picture
stecoop01 9 years 45 weeks ago

We can all agree that child pornography/molestation is a henious and unspeakable crime. But we must not throw away the rules of due process, equal protection, and rights of the accused just because we are more offended by one crime than by another. When emotion overrules reason, we become little more than vigilantes and lynch mobs - and that's when potentially innocent people get hurt, even killed.

It should be pointed out that Skillern's defense attorneys may try to get the charges dropped on the grounds that the evidence was illegally obtained. They probably won't succeed, but, than again, they just might; it depends on what other evidence there is against him.

On a different note, how stupid does one have to be to send child porn through e-mail? If I were to send child porn, or the launch codes for every nuclear missile on the planet, through e-mail, I would first encrypt the files using my own encryption program. (At some point, the receipiant would have received the decryption program). Skillern is definitly guilty of extreme stupidity.

There really is no such thing as privacy any more, unless you live deep underground with no contact with the rest of the world (privacy of the dead?). So, no matter what you're doing, you may just as well assume that somebody somewhere knows about it. And let's not forget all those Gods that are watching everything we do.

Today's joke:

Kitty porn is acceptable, kiddie porn is not.

DAnneMarc's picture
DAnneMarc 9 years 45 weeks ago
Quote stecoop01:We can all agree that child pornography/molestation is a henious and unspeakable crime. But we must not throw away the rules of due process, equal protection, and rights of the accused just because we are more offended by one crime than by another.
Quote stecoop01:There really is no such thing as privacy any more, unless you live deep underground with no contact with the rest of the world (privacy of the dead?). So, no matter what you're doing, you may just as well assume that somebody somewhere knows about it. And let's not forget all those Gods that are watching everything we do.

stecoop01 ~ Very well said! In fact, I think that is one of your best posts. Take a bow!

chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 9 years 45 weeks ago

PAL -- As Jimmy Kimmel said last night, if he had to choose between changing all his passwords and giving away all his personal information, he might well chose the latter.

dianhow 9 years 45 weeks ago

I am NOT a con but in this case I am happy google reported this pedophile What if it were your kid ?

chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 9 years 45 weeks ago

leighmf -- I thought packages were not 1st class mail?

chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 9 years 45 weeks ago

Once again we are letting the 1% run our lives. Any company that has more than 10% of the market should be terminated or least blown into many pieces.

Palindromedary's picture
Palindromedary 9 years 45 weeks ago

chuckle8 #18: ;-}

stecoop01's picture
stecoop01 9 years 45 weeks ago

Quote DAnneMarc:stecoop01 ~ Very well said! In fact, I think that is one of your best posts. Take a bow!

Thank you DAnne, I was infected with a moment of clarity and inspiration.

UNC Tarheels's picture
UNC Tarheels 9 years 45 weeks ago

I for one am glad that Google alerted the FBI. Possessing, distributing child porn is against the law. Google was looking out for Google. Victims of child porn in NY State can sue and recieve monetary damages from the person who sends, recieves it and the email company who disseminates it. If Google didn't report it then if proven Google will be liable. It is no different than a 24 hour photo developer alerting police when they discover child porn on a roll of developed film.

UNC Tarheels's picture
UNC Tarheels 9 years 45 weeks ago

I agree Leigh MF.

chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 9 years 45 weeks ago

UNC -- You agree with positive side, duh. What about the negative side?

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