Google, Crime Fighter

The company reported a sex offender to the police:

A Houston man was arrested after Google detected that he was trying to email sexually explicit photos of a young girl to his friend. After its data-crawling algorithms detected the images, Google tipped off the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which then alerted police. The man, John Henry Skillern, is now being held for $200,000 bail on charges of possessing child pornography.

Rich McCormick explains how Google’s algorithm works:

Google makes use of Microsoft’s PhotoDNA technology to scan emails, and calculate a mathematical hash for an image of child sexual abuse that allows it to recognize photos automatically even if they have been altered. The tech is now also used by both Twitter and Facebook, after Microsoft donated it to the NCMEC in 2009. Videos, too, have become the focus of such digital fingerprinting programs. Google has its own Video ID software for detecting footage of child sexual abuse, and British company Friend MTS donated its Expose F1 detection program to the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children (ICMEC) earlier this year.

While the technology has helped to halt the activities of people such as John Henry Skillern, the automated image detection systems used by Google and others have some flaws. For one, new pictures won’t be caught by software such as PhotoDNA: only images already recorded in the user’s database can be spotted. They also raise some privacy questions.

Lauren Williams looks at the legality of Google’s actions:

Courts largely support service providers monitoring content for child pornography as long as they don’t conspire with police to do so, Orin Kerr, a computer crime law professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., told ThinkProgress. “The big issue is the Fourth Amendment. Google needs to make sure that they are not acting as agents of the police,” he said.

Shafer fears where Google’s kiddie-porn offensive will lead:

Like cannibals, murderers, pedophiles and rapists, child pornographers — and customers of child pornography — constitute the worst of the human worst. They are the exemplars of the retrograde. Our natural impulse will always be to use whatever means, legal or technological, to expose and punish such unrepentant deviants.

Today, I’m fine with Web companies using scanning technology to uncover those who trade in child pornography. But the powers conjured up out of universal abhorrence have a way of spinning out of control, leading us to commit immoral acts in our pursuit of morality. It wasn’t that long ago that marrying across racial lines was a crime. Or that homosexual acts were punished by law. Or that pot smokers were jailed for decades. Or property covenants prevented Jews from buying properties.