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Google tips off US law enforcement to child porn suspect's email contents

Texas man arrested in case that has sparked privacy concerns over internet giant's access

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2014, 9:26pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 August, 2014, 4:28am
 

Google has defended its policy of electronically monitoring users' content for child sexual abuse after it tipped off police in the US state of Texas to the activities of a child pornography suspect.

Houston restaurant worker John Henry Skillern, 41, was arrested on Thursday following a tip Google had passed along via the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which is based outside Washington.

"He was trying to get around getting caught, he was trying to keep it inside his email," said detective David Nettles of the Houston Metro Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce.

"I can't see that information, I can't see that photo - but Google can," he told Houston television station KHOU, which first reported the story.

It's common knowledge that the world's leading internet service, like its rivals, tracks users' online behaviour in order to fine-tune its advertising services.

But the Texas case prompted concerns about the degree to which Google might be handing over information about its users' conduct to law-enforcement agencies.

"The story seems like a simple one with a happy outcome - a bad man did a crime and got caught," blogged John Hawes, chief of operations at Virus Bulletin, a cyber security consultancy.

"However, there will of course be some who see it as yet another sign of how the twin big brothers of state agencies and corporate behemoths have nothing better to do than delve into the private lives of all and sundry, looking for dirt," he said.

In an email, a Google spokesman said on Monday: "Sadly, all internet companies have to deal with child sexual abuse.

"It's why Google actively removes illegal imagery from our services - including search and Gmail - and immediately reports abuse to the NCMEC."

The NCMEC operates the CyberTipline, through which internet service providers can relay information about suspect online child sexual abuse on to police departments.

"Each child sexual abuse image is given a unique digital fingerprint which enables our systems to identify those pictures, including in Gmail," added the spokesman, who did not disclose technical details about the process.

"It is important to remember that we only use this technology to identify child sexual abuse imagery - not other email content that could be associated with criminal activity, for example using email to plot a burglary."

On its website on Monday, KHOU described Skillern as a registered sex offender, convicted 20 years ago of sexually assaulting an eight-year-old boy.

Investigators who raided his home allegedly found child porn on his phone and tablet device, as well as cellphone videos of children visiting the restaurant where he worked as a cook.

Skillern has been charged with one count of possession of child pornography and one count of promotion of child pornography. He was in custody on a $200,000 bond, KHOU said.

Google's online set of "programme policies" for its Gmail service, with more than 400 million users worldwide, includes "a zero-tolerance policy against child sexual abuse imagery."

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