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Google’s Gmail Scanning Leads to Arrest of Convicted Child Sex Offender

Google played a key role in exposing the identity of a convicted child sex offender recently after a routine scan raised the alarm that the individual was trying to use Gmail to send illegal images.

The web giant’s alert to the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children led to the arrest of 41-year-old Houston man John Henry Skillern, who was allegedly sending explicit pictures of a young girl to a friend, KHOU reported.

Skillern was convicted of sexually assaulting an 8-year-old boy in 1994. After his latest arrest police are said to have found more child porn on his tablet and smartphone, as well as incriminating email conversations.

"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." Google said evidence of the kind used to arrest Skillern is “regularly used to convict criminals”.

However, the web giant was at pains to point out that it only uses email scanning technology to prevent child exploitation-related criminal activity.

Its statement added the following:

Each child sexual abuse image is given a unique digital fingerprint which enables our systems to identify those pictures, including in Gmail. It is important to remember that we use this technology to identify child sexual abuse imagery, not email content that could be associated with general criminal activity (for example using email to plot a burglary).

Gmail’s Terms of Service explains that Google’s automated systems analyze content including emails to provide users with “personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection”.

It adds that “this analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored”.

However, the extent of Google’s scanning for child porn was not made explicit until now, although the firm has registered its commitment to fighting child exploitation online before.

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