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Registered sex offender breached contract with Google, using Gmail as his child pornography stash, got caught

Months ago, Google Inc. (GOOG) acknowledged in a widely reported, carefully worded statement that it did scan the content of users' emails and uploaded files with scripts to develop profiles with which to better advertise to them.  Surprisingly, while that report only drew mild grumbles, a new incident in which Google tipped off a child protection advocacy about a child pornography peddler is igniting a far fiercer debate over privacy.
I. Convicted Child Molester Gets Busted First by Google, Then by Cops
The incident began when Google scanned images uploaded by a Gmail user.  It detected the images contained a file known to be child pornography.  Google then alerted National Center for Missing and Exploited Children  -- an advocacy group it works closely with.  The Center -- who runs the well-known "Missing Kids" campaign, alerted authorities with the Houston Police.
Detective David Nettles of the Houston Metro Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce responded to the tip and appeared to enforce the law with utmost respect for due process.  Rather than lean on warrantless search provisions, Detective Nettles filed for a search warrant against the suspect -- John Henry Skillern -- asking to search the suspect's computer, smartphone, and other devices.  
After receiving the warrant, he conducted a search of Mr. Skillern's smartphone and tablet, which he did not appear to have bothered to password protect.

John Henry Skillern
John Henry Skillern had already been convicted once of sexually assaulting a child.  Now he was back at it again.  He might have gotten away too, if it wasn't for Google. [Image Source: Webster Police/KHOU 11]

It turns outs Mr. Skillern, 41, had been down this road before.  In 1994, Mr. Skillern -- then 21 -- sexually assaulted an 8-year-old boy.  He was later apprehended by police and registered as a sex offender.  In Texas, this meant that his address -- 2400 Lidstone, Houston, TX  -- was made public for all to see and beware.
In an alarming, but all too common twist, Mr. Skillern began spending much time away from his registered residence.  He was reportedly living almost full time with his parents on Hickory Lane in Pasadena, Texas, roughly a 14-mile drive away.  He even got a job in Pasadena, working at the local Denny's Corp. (DENN) restaurant.

Denny's Pasadena
The suspect worked at Denny's of Pasadena, Texas [pictured], and reportedly secretly took videos on his phone of diners' children while he pretended to work. [Image Source: Yelp]

When searching his cell phone, Detective Nettles found texts in which Mr. Skillern discussed his fantasies about young boys and girls.  The detective also found disturbing video that Mr. Skillern had taken surreptitiously of the children of Denny's patents while they ate unaware.  He also was found to possess child pornography -- a video of a young female child nude.
He was arrested and charged with one count of possession of child pornography and one count of promotion of child pornography.  He's currently being held in the local jail on a $200,000 USD bond as he awaits trial.
II. Some are Grateful That Google Took Action
Many expressed gratitude at Google's tip.  Detective Nettles said Google employees might have spared local families the pain of enduring what Mr. Skillern's first victim went through two decades ago.  He comments in an interview with KHOU:

He 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.  I really don't know how they do their job.  But I'm just glad they do it.

Detective Nettles
Detective David Nettles (pictured) of the Houston Metro Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce caught the alleged child sex offender thanks to Google's help. [Image Source: KHOU 11]

Yesenia Gonzales, a neighbor to Mr. Skillern's parents echoed this gratitude, noting that the neighbors had no idea the parent's child was a sex offender as he had not registered as living with them.  She commented:
He seemed like a nice, normal man.  Thank goodness for Google.
Others, though, have blasted Google for airing the child molester's dirty laundry.  Federal law compels companies to report any case of child abuse or pornography they find.  But it does not compel them to look for it.  Google's critics contend it never should have looked at Mr. Skillern's private files.
Of course this argument is a bit odd on a couple of accounts.  First, Google is a private business.  While it's indeed one of the most popular email services with over 400 million users, it's not compelled to keep your email private, as you choose to do business with it and choose to abide by the contract it asks users to sign when they activate an account.  In fact that contract explicitly warns:
[Google has] a zero-tolerance policy against child sexual abuse imagery.  If we become aware of such content, we will report it to the appropriate authorities and may take disciplinary action, including termination, against the Google accounts of those involved.
Mr. Skillern, like all users clicked that he accepted the terms, which authorized Google to "trawl" his account (as Google's legal chief counsel David Drummond put it last year) checking to make sure it did not contain known illegal images of child abuse.  Mr. Skillern breached the terms of his contract and Google's scripts caught him.
III. Internet Critics Say Google Employees Should be Sent to Prison for Protecting Children
But some are still condemning Google.  "ianeassonrogerscom" went as far as suggesting that Google employees should be sent to jail for turn the child predator in after he breached Google's contract.  The commenter posted on a Business Insider piece on the topic:

Google has no right to examine your email, no more than the Post Office has the right to open and examine your letters.
Despite the laudable outcome of their [Google's] illegal act, they [Google] should be charged for this and people [Google employees] should be sent to jail.

Google critic

A spokesperson for Google addressed such noisy critics commenting to the Associated Press:

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.  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 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).

To be fair to critics Google doesn't exactly have an unblemished track record when it comes to other privacy issues.  It regularly pries into its users' messages and files to boost advertising profit.  Its user terms for Gmail and other services contained vague language hinting at that, but there wasn't exactly an explicit confirmation from Google that it was data mining Gmail messages until it admitted to doing so in a court brief.  It was even caught spying on users on open Wi-Fi networks.

Google sign
[Image Source: My Life Untethered]

To Google's credit, in April it voluntarily updated its contract terms for Gmail and other services, more explicitly stating that private user data might be scanned and used to build anonymous, non-identifiable profiles to better monetize targeted ads, ads which support Google's free services.
But what makes this fresh criticism particularly whacky is that the court battle over email scanning -- perhaps a valid controversy -- was largely greeted with yawns and apathy.  Now faced with a much more clear cut case of Google rightfully protecting children and holding a user to its very explicitly stated contract terms about illegal behavior, Google is finally experiencing some harsh criticisms from the peanut gallery.
IV. Past Concerns Aside, This Time Google is Entirely in the Right
It's worth emphasizing that not only does Google explicitly state it polices uploaded images and video for known files related to child abuse, it also talks about it, practically all the time.

Questionable advertising-geared data mining aside, Google repeatedly warns users not to post child abuse materials and explicitly states that doing so breaches your terms of service. [Image Source: CNN]

In a lengthy blog post, for example, Google Giving director Jacquelline Fuller wrote:

In 2011, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s (NCMEC’s) Cybertipline Child Victim Identification Program reviewed 17.3 million images and videos of suspected child sexual abuse. ...

Since 2008, we’ve used 'hashing' technology to tag known child sexual abuse images, allowing us to identify duplicate images which may exist elsewhere. ...

We’re in the business of making information widely available, but there’s certain 'information' that should never be created or found. We can do a lot to ensure it’s not available online—and that when people try to share this disgusting content they are caught and prosecuted.

The technology behind Google's checking is remarkably simple.  It simply makes a hashes of all known/currently distributed child pornography images, then compares you image to it.  When it comes to its abuse prevention Google doesn't look at you image or otherwise inspect your text, unless the image you're sending matches a known child porn image.

If your image matches, it then has a human in its abuse prevention teams check the message thread to rule out if you were targeted by a prank/smear effort.  Only if you clearly appear to be involved does it take the next step of reporting you to NMEC for further investigation.

Admittedly Google is among the most aggressive internet firms in spending its own time, money, and resources in combatting child abuse on the internet, including across its popular platform of services.  Regardless of commenters' feelings of Google and its privacy policies in general terms, the growing outrage is astounding.   Rather than receiving praise for keeping children safe from a convicted child molester, Google is begin condemned for holding its users accountable when they choose to break the law and breach their contract. 

John Henry Skillern
Despite sexually assaulting a child, peddling child porn, and breaching his contract with Google, some critics are bizarrly outraged over Google helped catch him in the act. [Image Source: Webster Police/KHOU 11]

Google warned Mr. Skillern.  If what Google and prosecutors claim is true, he reject those warnings, succumbing to his dark perversions.  

Instead of heeding Google's clear and explicity warnings he chose to brazenly defy them.  He'll have his day in court, but one would hope that more commenters realize that he got their due to his own stupidity, compulsiveness, and arrogance -- not due to some malice on Google's part.

Sources: KHOU, Business Insider

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Someone please think of the children....
By coburn_c on 8/5/2014 10:07:57 PM , Rating: -1
Is the traditional boot in the door of all invasions. Microsoft is in court fighting to gain us privacy rights because they were shamed. Lets keep shaming.

RE: Someone please think of the children....
By JasonMick on 8/5/2014 10:34:30 PM , Rating: 5
Microsoft is in court fighting to gain us privacy rights because they were shamed.
Uh Microsoft is fighting to stop NSA data collection. It is NOT suing to protect child pornographers.

Guess what?

Google has also sued to stop several of NSA data collection orders!! But that's an entirely different topic so why are we talking about it?

Microsoft, Google, and Apple ALL screen their services for child pornography. Read the terms of service then doing a bit of Googling. They're private businesses. If they want to try to prevent child abuse that's within their rights.

All you people talk about privacy.... you probably have a Facebook, right? Comparing your images you upload to a hash at upload time does not compromise your privacy. It simply checks if you uploaded known child pornography.

Maybe if you are unaware of how the technology works I might see where you're coming from.... but cmon... its just a hash. Microsoft and Apple employ similar technology. If anything Google is the most liberal in allowing free expression.

Apple, for example bans political satire, religious parodies and other somewhat controversial artistic statements that Google allows.

Google may sacrifice your privacy for its profit at times, which is about what you'd expect from a service you pay nothing for.

But in this case it's not making any money. It's just looking to prevent illegal behavior via a responsibly written contract, a clear technological safeguard (hashing of uploads), and a transparent effort against users who appear to be violating its terms of service.

Can mistakes happen? Sure. But it isn't putting you in jail. It's just kicking you off the platform for appearing to breach your contract and letting authorities investigate. If it was all a misunderstanding, I'm sure it will welcome you back so it can advertise you more kittie calendar adwords.

If the accusation proves true... well, you got what was coming to you, for being a pervert, breaking the law, and breaching a contract (which is a legally binding contract, so you also broke a civil law).

RE: Someone please think of the children....
By coburn_c on 8/6/2014 2:36:22 PM , Rating: 3
The ACLU represents the privacy rights of child molesters all the time. I don't think it's because they advocate molestation. I think it's because they advocate privacy. I think it's because they know it's only a matter of time before those privacy violations extend to other crimes. I think that what I said. I think you heard what you want to hear. I think that sums you up in a nutshell.

By HomerTNachoCheese on 8/7/2014 9:07:39 AM , Rating: 2
Is the traditional boot in the door of all invasions. Microsoft is in court fighting to gain us privacy rights because they were shamed. Lets keep shaming.

Yep. Now I see what you were saying. That has ACLU and their fight for privacy written all over it.

No wait. Weren't you talking about Microsoft and shaming? I think that what you said. I think you forgot to type what you meant to say, but we are all supposed to know what you meant.

Sure we can all bash Jason Mick from time to time. You are just doing it wrong. I don't think you really understand what is going on or how this works. I think that sums you up in a nutshell.

One undeserving bash against someone here deserves another, right?

RE: Someone please think of the children....
By sprockkets on 8/5/2014 10:44:35 PM , Rating: 2
FYI, Microsoft is also doing exactly the same as Google when dealing with child porn.

By althaz on 8/5/2014 11:07:07 PM , Rating: 2
They certainly are.

Actually, I'm not sure why this is even slightly a big deal - Google were already reading every email to and from your account to better advertise to you (and you agreed to that as part of the GMail terms of service), is it really worse to also check for child porn instead of just advertising opportunities?

RE: Someone please think of the children....
By Reclaimer77 on 8/5/2014 11:22:32 PM , Rating: 2
Yes because you have the "right" to be a child molester and store the evidence on a public service?

RE: Someone please think of the children....
By SeeManRun on 8/6/2014 10:57:20 AM , Rating: 2
They might be opening up a can of worms here. Once they admit they can scan email, they may be help liable when child porn does get through. I think they would be better off doing like Blackberry and saying "We don't know what users are sending, and we don't have the ability to find out". That would ensure privacy and limit any possibly liability.

Child porn today, but what excuse tomorrow? The road to ruin is paved with good intentions.

RE: Someone please think of the children....
By wookie1 on 8/6/2014 12:31:14 PM , Rating: 2
Well that approach would not enable the business plan! They have to know what you're sending and receiving so that they can target advertisements towards you. That's the reason they offer the free e-mail. Same for Google Voice. They transcribe your conversations for the same purpose, which is why they give you a free phone number.

RE: Someone please think of the children....
By SeeManRun on 8/6/2014 1:20:13 PM , Rating: 2
I don't necessarily agree with this. Their machine scans your email for words that sponsors pay to have associated with their ads. So if you talk about your baby wetting his DIAPERS, then Google can send you an ad for Pampers.

However, if you send over an email about the nuclear reactor research project you are doing, Google does not send you ads for a nuclear reactor.

It would be interesting to see what his email said to trigger Gmail's filters, but one could logically assume they have added filters not just for ads, but to filter out this kind of email message. Which could lead one to the question, what else might their filters be scanning for if not advertisements and child exploitation.

I am sure we would all be furious if we learned their filters helped them intercept job applications to competitors, or stock tips on upcoming transactions. Clearly they have demonstrated they have that ability with this report. Whether they use it or not we won't know until someone leaks it. They almost certainly do not use it, but knowing they can should give us all pause on what we send via Gmail.

By wookie1 on 8/6/2014 3:35:43 PM , Rating: 2
Whatever they're scanning for, it's proprietary and they won't be revealing it. It could be anything or everything. That's the tradeoff you're making for free mail and phone. You can either rely on the "don't be evil" slogan, or be careful what you do on free platforms that you know derive revenue from scanning through your mail and conversations to sell information to their advertisers.

By Reclaimer77 on 8/6/2014 12:31:27 PM , Rating: 2
Everyone knows they scan emails!! How in the hell do you think the spam filter works?

they may be help liable when child porn does get through.

I don't believe there is any law stating Google could be held accountable if this were to take place. However they COULD be held liable if they didn't take action. They took action though, and the world is better for it.

They did an internal investigation and then handed it off to the authorities. It doesn't get more professional and thorough than that, also it made sure that they covered their asses.

I think they would be better off doing like Blackberry and saying

That's easy when you don't have any users anyway :P



By atechfan on 8/6/2014 4:49:51 AM , Rating: 2
Why should we be shaming Google? No country that I know of gives you a constitutional right to store illegal material on someone else's property. No rights were violated here. This guy chose to use Google to store child pornography. Google does not want that there because allowing it would make them complicate.

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