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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.

Gmail
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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RE: This Time, DT Is In The Wrong
By JasonMick (blog) on 8/6/2014 12:12:32 AM , Rating: 1
quote:
Aren't you one of those who objects to giving up freedom and privacy for the sake of children?
Really?

How is a voluntary firm you choose to give you data to comparing a hash of your image against a hash table of in-distribution child abuse images "giving up freedom and privacy"?

I'm pretty sure it's the child rapists that are denying people their freedom and privacy. Google caught a creeper who was video taping children while he was SUPPOSED to be working at Denny's. Now who's the one violating privacy?

This guy stalked children, fantasized about raping them, and already was convicted of raping one child. Google simply was comparing image hashes to a list of illegal materials.

Google is PROTECTING privacy and freedom by taking these kinds of creepers down... It did its homework and it's hard to believe this man is not guilty. But hey, that's the beauty of due process... he'll STILL have his day in court.


RE: This Time, DT Is In The Wrong
By inighthawki on 8/6/2014 2:38:38 AM , Rating: 1
quote:
Google is PROTECTING privacy and freedom by taking these kinds of creepers down...

While I don't have any negative opinion about what Google did, this is the same argument used by people like the NSA to "protect our freedom" by collecting huge stockpiles of information to help identify the "bad people who threaten it."

You are not protecting privacy and freedom, you are giving up a small bit of privacy for the safety and security of allowing someone to lock up criminals. (Not arguing the good vs bad here, just saying that your argument's point is not valid)


RE: This Time, DT Is In The Wrong
By Reclaimer77 on 8/6/2014 7:58:16 AM , Rating: 3
No there is a HUGE difference here. My goodness I...I'm at a complete loss to how a thinking rational person could possibly be saying the things you're saying here.

I bet if he had an Outlook account, you would be cheering Microsoft here. Because guess what? They would have done the same thing. ANYONE would have!

1. Nobody signs up to give data to the NSA, it's forced.
2. What the NSA is doing is technically illegal, Google's action was legal and moral.
3. You can opt-out of Google, not so much the NSA. Even if you leave the country.

4. Google performed a simple hash match, NO "privacy" was violated. No "huge stockpiles" of data was even collected.

5. Last but not least, child molestation/porn is wrong. Just FYI.

Jason's point is completely valid. I can't believe people like you would seriously support this pedophile rapist scum and entertain these arguments.


RE: This Time, DT Is In The Wrong
By Labotomizer on 8/6/2014 10:18:07 AM , Rating: 2
It's almost beyond words.

To be honest, I would have no problems with this being implemented on an ISP level where they check hashes against images for known child pornography. Anything that gets rid of people like that is a huge win. I can't imagine a person actually complaining about it. The fact people are comparing this to scanning email for advertising or NSA spying is one of the most absurd things I've ever read.


RE: This Time, DT Is In The Wrong
By inighthawki on 8/6/2014 11:28:36 AM , Rating: 2
Again, since everyone here seems to have reading comprehension issues. Please re-read my post. I did NOT compare this to what the NSA is doing. I compared Jason's quote to the JUSTIFICATION used by people LIKE the NSA. Not at all related.


RE: This Time, DT Is In The Wrong
By Labotomizer on 8/6/2014 12:10:45 PM , Rating: 2
How can you compare two things and then state they aren't meant to be related?


By inighthawki on 8/6/2014 12:15:01 PM , Rating: 2
Because if you read my post carefully, you will see that I never compared what Google is doing to that of the NSA.


RE: This Time, DT Is In The Wrong
By Reclaimer77 on 8/6/14, Rating: -1
RE: This Time, DT Is In The Wrong
By inighthawki on 8/6/2014 1:20:10 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
You know what, just shut up.

A little rude, no?

quote:
Whatever point you think you were trying to make, it's not worth it.

No it's not. Clearly it was a mistake to bring it up and I regret that. But at this point I'm trying to make it clear to people that I was not trying to compare Google to the NSA at all. I don't want it brought up down the line as "aren't you the guy who compared Google scanning hashes of images to the NSA?" While I don't care what people think of me and my opinions (They're just opinions after all) I do not want people falsely accusing me of things I didn't say simply because they cannot read.


RE: This Time, DT Is In The Wrong
By inighthawki on 8/6/2014 11:17:35 AM , Rating: 1
Seriously, what the literal f*ck? Why do you keep thinking I'm defending this guy OR saying what Google is doing is bad? Did you even read my posts. Nowhere did I say ANYTHING along those lines. I made it clear in my other posts:

1) This guy is filthy trash, and absolutely deserves to be behind bars
2) Google did nothing at all wrong

But it seems you missed my point entirely. The email scanning they do IS in invasion of privacy. You are correct - people opt for it, it's a free service, they agree to those terms. There is nothing wrong with that. But it is what it is: Less privacy. Not a lot. Not in any way important. Just less.

Making the statement that "This is actually more privacy and freedom because it keeps people like this off the streets" is therefore a completely invalid statement. You are falsely associating freedom and privacy with the peace of mind and security of people like this being behind bars. Does it make the world a safer place? sure. Does it make people overall happier knowing that less people like this roam the street? Almost certainly. Does it actually provide anyone with additional privacy or freedom? No. It does not.

I was also not trying to compare this to the NSA. I was not at all saying the two things were the same, simply that the above quote from Jason is the same JUSTIFICATION that people like the NSA use for what they do.


By Reclaimer77 on 8/6/2014 12:26:27 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
The email scanning they do IS in invasion of privacy.


Then your entire argument here is false. Because it's clearly not. I think you should look up what "privacy" is first, you seem confused.

quote:
But it seems you missed my point entirely.


Well no offense but it seems that EVERYONE here is "missing your point". Coincidence?


RE: This Time, DT Is In The Wrong
By W00dmann on 8/6/2014 3:46:32 PM , Rating: 3
Reclaimer77 is not known for his fantastical mental prowess. His responses are largely at a 4-year old emotional level, and it shows. Everybody is entitled to their opinion, I suppose.


By Reclaimer77 on 8/7/2014 10:02:59 AM , Rating: 2
Hmmm you might be onto something. My father left me when I was around 4 years old, which severely crippled my emotional growth and self-image as a person.

I'm almost 40 now and I still ask myself when, if ever, will I "grow up".

Sure I have the car, the mortgage, the job and the girlfriend....but I've never felt the need/want to have a wife and children of my own. I don't feel I'm emotionally mature enough for that kind of relationship..

Well Woodmann, you've given me a lot to think about. Thanks.


RE: This Time, DT Is In The Wrong
By karimtemple on 8/6/2014 9:03:45 AM , Rating: 2
The NSA is wrong yes, but you don't seem to understand why.

You see, in this instance, the man and the service had an agreement ; when you use a website, you're subject to the website's terms of service. Not a single individual signed up for the particular NSA 'services' in question, in any way. And the NSA is only wrong by proxy of Congress, who ultimately are the idiots responsible for making these services [questionably] legal.

And just FYI, won't really don't have any privacy laws, tbh. We've got some basic stuff that [tried to] protect us from the government, but that's it. From a legal standpoint, we're not set up all too well for the world we've been creating in the last 20 years. And that's the scariest part of all, because we could fix that right up with some new laws, maybe even an Amendment or two, but the problem is you're all clueless. When we do it, we're probably going to do it wrong.

So. Good luck to us.


RE: This Time, DT Is In The Wrong
By inighthawki on 8/6/2014 11:23:06 AM , Rating: 2
I was only comparing the commonality in justification, not what the two were actually doing. I'm well aware that what the NSA did is much different and much worse than what Google did here. I was simply implying that the argument that people like the NSA use to try and justify what they do is the same. "Give up a small tad of your privacy in exchange for some security and peace of mind." Yes Google is a free service, and I understand that people must choose to use it and agree to their terms of service. And for that, there is nothing wrong being done here. I'm not accusing anyone, including Google, or any wrongdoing. Simply that the comment by Jason is not valid.


RE: This Time, DT Is In The Wrong
By karimtemple on 8/6/2014 11:59:57 AM , Rating: 2
Actually, you're the only one who used that wording. You're therefore the only one here who made that assertion.

Jason indicated that people agree to let Google sift through their data by accepting the ToS, not that they do so for the sake of security. By adding the 'security, NSA' bit to bolster your side of the argument, you accidentally did exactly what you keep saying you didn't do -- you compared what Google did to what the NSA did.

Oops.


RE: This Time, DT Is In The Wrong
By inighthawki on 8/6/2014 12:13:31 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Actually, you're the only one who used that wording. You're therefore the only one here who made that assertion.

No, I didn't. Please learn to read:

quote:
this is the same argument used by people like the NSA to "protect our freedom" by collecting huge stockpiles of information to help identify the "bad people who threaten it."


The latter half of the sentence was just an example of where the NSA used said excuse, not a comparison to Google at all

There is no "accidental" comparing going on here. It's people skipping over key words in the sentence and inferring something that isn't there by ignoring the actual context of the statement. Then other people see replies from others and think "OMG someone actually compared this to the NSA!" without ever actually having read the comment itself, or reading it with a bias and thus seeing what they wanted to read, not what was actually written. (A common problem in writing when the author incorrectly reads his own work because he reads what he thinks he wrote instead of the actual words on the paper)


RE: This Time, DT Is In The Wrong
By karimtemple on 8/6/2014 3:57:17 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
The latter half of the sentence was just an example of where the NSA used said excuse, not a comparison to Google at all

Problem #1: You said "it's not a comparison to Google." It's literally a comparison. Specifically, it's equivalence: "this argument is the same one used by the NSA." By asserting that Jason's argument is such, you asserted that he was defending behavior by Google in a manner in which the NSA defends their behavior, thereby equating the behaviors of both. Thus, your accident.

Problem #2: Your analysis of his argument was flawed from the start. It was actually: "The suspect assailed people's privacy and freedoms. By the acts in question, Google has literally protected privacy and freedom." It was an observation of irony, often a kiss of death for opposing arguments and the poor souls who remain unaware of said irony.

Problem #3: Pride. You'll never admit how wrong you are here, simply because you know you won't like how it feels to be wrong. But inighthawki, it's okay.

It's okay.

And don't worry about it. We'll know you're wrong whether you admit it or not. You don't have to say anything.


By inighthawki on 8/6/2014 6:02:13 PM , Rating: 2
#1: Stating that two people used the same argument to justify their actions is not the same as equating the two persons' behaviors or actions. If you're trying to be super technical here about how "I made a comparison, it involved something relating to the NSA, and a post from Jason relating to Google" then by all means, you win. There are points of connection between "NSA" and "Google" somewhere in the argument.

#2: I admit I did miss his original point, which is why I stopped defending my point when I realized I was wrong. After that I've just been trying to correct people who seem to think I was defending this guy or something, or people like you who keep trying to claim I made a comparison between what Google was doing with what the NSA was doing. Just nope.

#3: I have no words. I mean, that's so incredibly arrogant. I've on many occasions on this site admitted when I was wrong or I misunderstood something. This time is no different. Unfortunately I tried to make a reply to Reclaimer earlier but the site would not let me post (not sure why) explaining that I had made a mistake and missed a key point in the article and Jason's comment. Take that as you will - I obviously cannot prove that but it happened.

I admit I was wrong about the point, but I will stand by the fact that my statement is NOT comparing Google to the NSA. Try to analyze the wording all you want, that's simply not true.


By wordsworm on 8/6/2014 1:00:54 PM , Rating: 2
I don't see how this would be different than the NSA/FBI/CIA/Bell/etc scanning all phone calls looking for child abusers. It's not the abuser being caught that is the problem. It's how he was caught that I have a problem with.

They should rename gmail to spymail.

I don't think anyone here is defending his actions and abuse of children.

If the FBI/police had the ability to search any home or business at any time, or wiretap, without a warrant, they would surely find more child abusers, terrorists, etc.


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