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Google’s Role in Child Pornography Cases

Most people are aware Google scans emails to develop advertisements targeted to users’ particular interests.  In fact, the notion Google will scan your content to tailor your advertising has been well known; the company’s terms of service notify users their emails are being analyzed. However, most people are not aware Google also scans both emails and search requests on its site to detect and report child pornography.

Google’s online set of “program policies” for its Gmail service includes “a zero-tolerance policy against child sexual abuse imagery.”  That policy states: “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.”

Consistent with that policy, since 2008 Google has actively scanned images that pass through Gmail accounts to determine whether they match up with known child pornography.  More specifically, Google has been using “hashing” technology to tag known child sexual abuse images, allowing it to identify duplicate images in Gmail accounts or in search results, even if the images have been altered.  Each offending image effectively is assigned a unique ID Google’s computers can recognize without someone having to view them again. And, Google also incorporates encrypted “fingerprints” of child sexual abuse images into a cross-industry database. This technique enable companies, law enforcement and charities to better collaborate on detecting and removing these images, and to take action against anyone involved with producing or viewing the materials. 

Currently there are more than 1.5 billion Gmail users world-wide.  When child pornography images or videos are sent through Google’s email service, they are identified by its automated systems. Federal law requires electronic communication providers like Google to report instances of suspected child abuse when they become aware of them.  Once detected, Google actively removes the materials from its services, including search and Gmail, and immediately reports the matter to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

NCMEC is a private, non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation whose mission is to find missing children, reduce child sexual exploitation and prevent child victimization.  Upon receiving a report of child pornography, which NCMEC refers to as Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM), it refers the matter to the appropriate local law enforcement agency, the FBI, and/or the United States Department of Homeland Security.  The number of tips compiled by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has erupted in recent years. In 2010, there were more than 213,000 tips involving child pornography. In 2017, that number increased to more than 10 million.

Google is not alone in its efforts to combat child pornography.  Microsoft also utilizes automated systems to detect child pornography hosted on its servers. In 2012, Microsoft made its PhotoDNA tool available to law enforcement.  That technology compiles a digital signature of each image, which can be matched against a database of known images of sexual abuse. Once as match is made, the information is provided to NCMEC for further investigation, referral to law enforcement, and possible prosecution.

Many child pornography cases are the result of a Google report of CSAM to the NCMEC.  If you have been arrested for possession and/or distribution of child pornography, you may have strong defenses to your charges based on, among others, the method of detection of your internet activities.  Child pornography cases carry significant penalties, including substantial prison time, high fines, extended periods of probation and registration as a sex offender.

If you’ve been arrested for possession or distribution of child pornography, you should contact a Jacksonville criminal defense lawyer with knowledge about, and experience with, these kinds of matters and attendant issues.  Doing so will give you the best chance of avoiding or lessening the penalties associated with these types of crimes.  Please call me for a free consultation to discuss how I can help you with your child pornography case in Duval County, Clay County, Nassau County or St. Johns County.