Is there any expectation of privacy anymore?
By John D. Turner
14 Aug 2014

“Paedophile snared as Google scans Gmail for images of child abuse” – The Telegraph, 4 Aug 2014

Google caught a Pedophile. Hurray! The folks in Houston, where this vermin was found will no-doubt breathe easier. Who doesn’t think it is good to catch pedophiles (except of course, pedophiles), but on the other hand, does that make it OK to read my email? I’m not a pedophile.

Here’s how it works. Google has developed software that “proactively scours hundreds of millions of email accounts for images of child abuse.” This of course, includes your Gmail account as well; after all, Google doesn’t know that you are not an abuser of children. If it finds a match between a picture you send and a picture on file in their extensive database of abused children, it raises a flag and alerts, here in the US, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They in turn examine the image and decide whether or not to alert police and child protective services in the area.

It’s good to know that Google is so public minded, I guess, but who appointed them the image police? And just because it might be technologically possible, does that mean it’s a good idea?

Google maintains, of course, that they are just providing a public service, helping law enforcement catch bad guys that no one really wants in their back yard. I mean, pedophiles – yuck! And besides, the system operates automatically – no one at Google is actually “reading” your email; they are just “scouring” it to make sure you aren’t a bad guy. And of course, since you are not a bad guy, it’s all good, right? Gotta keep those kiddies safe, don’t we?

Except – what if other government agencies are looking for other types of pictures? Suppose that the government might be interested in a backdoor way of determining who in the country has a gun, for instance, and what type? Might they not be interested in compiling a database of said people, based on tips from pictures scanned by Google? Facial recognition software comes into play here as well, making it easy to look for specific individuals in that morass of millions of email messages.

What about other uses? How about targeted advertising? I am sure that the software developed and the servers and computer time used to do all this scanning cost Google a significant sum of money each year. They could, I suppose, simply be altruistic public citizens (see – corporations are people), doing this out of the goodness of their hearts to combat the evils of child abuse (and using it as a tax write off, of course). But they are a business, in business to make money. After all, if they don’t make money how will they finance the development of things like driverless cars?

As an example, suppose you are a company that sells boats and other boating related paraphernalia? Wouldn’t you like a prequalified list of people who own boats to target your advertising towards? By “prequalified” I mean people who already have boats or who might have an interest in boating? And how might you do that?

There are many ways, but one way might be to buy such a list from Google. Google could compile such a list from searches for boats or boating paraphernalia on its search engines. They could also do it by scanning images on Gmail for those containing boats of the type they are looking for, or other related items.

Note that at no time have they actually “read” your email. They are just scanning images. And no human eyes have actually looked at your email – unless of course they “flag” something as potential illegal activity. So that’s OK, right? You don’t mind receiving more junk email trying to get you to buy something, and it might even be convenient for you not to have to track things down. You like it when you get junk mail in your snail mail, don’t you? It gives you something to put in your recycle bin so you can feel good about saving the environment.

Of course, email doesn’t have the “environmental impact” of physical junk mail, and who doesn’t like spending an hour or so each day deleting junk email? Well, actually it does have some environmental impact; somewhere there are server farms handling all that stuff, and they use a lot of electricity. (But that is another article, for another time.)

How about “false positives?” Ever take a picture of your kid in the bathtub and sent it to Aunt Emma? How about naked pictures of the kid crawling on a rug or running around the yard or doing some other thing in the buff? I don’t know how prevalent this is these days, but I remember seeing pictures of me taking a bath. No “puerile intent” was meant by the pictures. They weren’t taken to be “porn;” they were cute. If you had even suggested that such pictures were pornographic back then, people would have laughed at you.

However today such pictures could conceivably be considered “kiddie porn” and could land you in hot water if not jail. Even if you were able to convince the law (and possibly a jury) that you were innocent of photographing your children for your and other’s sexual gratification, you would probably still have to live with the aftermath; your computers seized, your life turned upside-down, legal fees, and your good name dragged through the mud.

Think this is a bit far-fetched? Think again. Transferring pictures of naked children through the mail – electronic or physical – is a felony. It’s called “trafficking in persons.” How many kids have been charged with just such a crime when caught “sexting” a picture of themselves to another kid? You hear about it all the time these days. And if nothing else, it gives child protective services the excuse to spring into action and investigate your home life to see if your kids need to be taken away from you. You do not want these folks in your house, as they seem to have the authority to do pretty much as they please as long as it is in “the best interests of the children,” with “best interests” being defined by them and the state.

So what about anything that Google doesn’t like? Suppose the folks in charge at Google decide that people using Gmail must conform to whatever political position they choose to take. Facebook has such policies in place regarding what you can and cannot post on their application. Can they scan the emails for pictures of guns, for example, and toss any emails containing them into the bit-bucket? Scanning technology for text has existed for quite some time. Can they scan your email for key words and dump any emails that contain references to pro-life, traditional marriage, or religious or political stances they don’t support? Is this OK?

You would get annoyed I expect if your neighbor picked up your snail mail and read your stuff; in fact, it is illegal to do so. You would probably get annoyed if the government did it (NSA is undoubtedly doing it, but they are a black hole – things go in but they never come out) as well, although they can legally do it – with a court order. So why then is it OK for Google to do the same with email; just because you are using their mail service? Is it OK then for the postal employees to open your mail and read it?

And don’t tell me that “technically” they are not reading it, since human eyes are not physically involved. Reading with electronic “eyes” is pretty much the same thing. Your privacy is being violated. Just because your email wasn’t flagged doesn’t mean it wasn’t read. And you never know what kinds of lists or tally sheets are being electronically compiled from the data as well. Is that OK too?

Does the fact that you sent the email through a publically accessible email service mean that there is no expectation of privacy? The US Postal Service is publically accessible. Do you expect your sealed snail mail to be private?

Is anything “private” these days? If I talk on a cell phone, my words go out over the airwaves. They can be intercepted by anyone with the appropriate scanner – although it is supposedly illegal to do so as it violates federal wiretapping law. Can the cell phone company scan the packets and do whatever with them? Suppose they are scanning the conversations electronically – no one is actually “listening” to your conversation, looking for key words that indicate you may be a pedophile. Is that OK?

How about if they run all your electronically available data through a program looking for “patterns” that might indicate you are a pedophile? By this I mean your electronic “footprint”. Things like what you post on Facebook and Twitter or other social media, your whereabouts (collected via Facebook), electronic transactions (your credit card and banking information), your purchases, your Internet searches, what books you checkout at the library, who you associate with (and who they associate with).

Do you know your friends, even good friends, well enough to know everything they do and who they associate with? Should you? Should the government? Should Google?

All I know is that it is a lot easier to engage in activity that would not normally be condoned if it is presented to the public as serving some public good.

If I came out and said “I want to be able to read, scan, whatever you want to call it, your email to see what you are up to and ensure that you are not engaging in behavior that I don’t like,” you would probably tell me where to stick it. But if I say that I am trying to catch pedophiles? Great! Thanks for making my kids’ lives safer!

If you write software to search everyone’s email and scan for pedophilia, you can use that same software to scan for anything; how great is that if you are the government and want to have the capability to monitor everyone? What police state would not get excited at that prospect?

Whereas it may be a good thing to catch a pedophile – is it a good thing to set up a surveillance system that can be used not only to catch pedophiles, but to search for anything you might like to search for in order to do so? Is it OK for me to see you in the buff? Why not – if you aren’t doing anything wrong, why should you care?

High-tech digital surveillance systems such as this are laying our lives bare to anyone who feels they have a reason to look. It used to be that what you did in the privacy of your own home was considered your business; not so much anymore. If it can somehow make its way onto that thing we call the Internet, it is no longer “private” or “your business.”

There is talk of directly interfacing the human brain to the internet. Once that happens even your thoughts will not be private.

UPDATE - 5 Sep 2014
Well what do you know - Google is scanning your text GMail as well - even if you never open it - even if you delete it without opening it. Hey, Google apparently has a need to know what you send and receive. This came out in court back in February, and Google has been trying to redact the information ever since. Check out this article for details.