Google tipped authorities on man's illegal email content

It is always a reason for rejoicing when technology is applied to bring law offenders to justice, but there is a difference between use and abuse. Google might be treading that very thin line again when it alerted authorities that a certain man's emails contained explicit content of a child, eventually leading to his arrest by Houston police.

The scenario seems simple enough. The man is a convicted and registered sex offender who has been caught with his pants down, figuratively speaking of course, possessing explicit images of a child in his email. Houston police, however, practically implied that they would have never been privy to that fact if Google had not tipped the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children about it. The tip led to a search warrant that yielded more than what Google knew was there. While the man's arrest may be declared a victory for the law, it is also once again raising concern among privacy advocacy groups.

At the heart of the matter is Gmail users' expectation of privacy, or rather the absence of it. Google never had any qualms about its email scanning activities, but portrays those mostly as part of improving its services and business, which includes targeted ads. However, Google is also required by law to report illegal activities it comes across, as this incident seems to indicate.

The problem is that there is a subtle difference in this case between reporting what one sees and actually going about looking for it. One could argue that Google's discovery of the man's porn stash was only a by-product of its scanning of Gmail users' emails. However, even if you agree to that activity in itself, which some definitely don't, it does mean that Google has certain filters for this type of material, which could be taken as tantamount to actively snooping around private emails for such content.

Edward Snowden's whistleblowing has shaken up the IT world by revealing the complicity, consciously or not, of firms in the US government's activities. In cases such as these, however, it seems that some companies are only too eager to hand over such data to the government, at least on a case to case basis. To its credit, Google does warn users in its Privacy Policies that is it scanning users' emails. However, given how many people don't actually read such lengthy and jargon-filled documents and how Gmail and other services like it offer unmatched convenience, some might have unknowingly given up their privacy in exchange for a free email account.

SOURCE: Business Insider