This is Google: You are under arrest

There can be few things more heinous than kiddy porn…nobody (including myself) could defend any aspect of it. However the recent story where Google tipped off the authorities that a Gmail user had child porn in his Gmail account is a little troubling. What makes it even more interesting is that the offending images were apparently attached to email presumably for storage. To discover the images one would have to open them, obviously it’s easier for Google to open and read. If I wanted to store content without even risking sending them over the net, I could simply attach them to an email and save that mail as draft.

What if I played entirely consensual harmless bondage or kidnap games with my partner and sent her pics of her bound and gagged in the trunk of a car. Those images might be clear evidence of a highly criminal event…or two kinksters sharing legally and consensually generated content. What if I sent a hate filled tirade against a racial or religious group perhaps calling for a mosque or similar to be bombed…I might expect the NSA or the FBI to come knocking at my door…but can I assume that Google will be dropping the dime on me? I’m sure it’s a complex legal area…but it’s also potentially a slippery slope. If I email my dealer and tell him where to drop off the kilo of black tar heroin…should Google be telling the FBI? Google is amazingly great at analysing all things data…even encrypted data…should the FBI be subcontracting them to scan all of our mail and pass along candidates for incarceration. I appreciate that I checked the box which said I allow Google to scan my mail and serve any ads they may feel appropriate but I don’t recall giving them permission to send me to jail as well?

I Wasn’t Using My Fourth Amendment Rights Anyway

Anyone who has spent any time with me will recognize that I’m really not a huge fan of other folks getting into my business. If I could vote (I can’t as with lunatics, criminals and other dangerous people US permanent legal residents don’t get the right), I might be Libertarian, or “nuts” as my lovely wife would put it. We are heavily over policed in general and in my city in particular, I’d decriminalize, tax and regulate all drugs and what you do in your bedroom is entirely up to you as long as everyone involved is over 18 and having fun.

I do have a bit of a man crush on the smartest guy in show business (Mr. Penn Jillette), and at a show of his a couple of years ago I bought an interesting souvenir. At the show they sell a credit card sized piece of metal that has the fourth amendment printed on it (Penn signed mine… sigh… dreamy). The idea is that you put it in your pocket and go through airport security… where you will be stopped and searched without probable cause or a warrant… it’s a kind of an extended ironic joke. I actually did it exactly once… and nearly missed my flight as a team of low IQ minimum wage idiots tortured me over a joke they didn’t get.

It’s doubly ironic that, in our online age, our private emails are being stopped and searched routinely every day… every one of them. If you are one of the 400+ million Gmail users, our good friends at Google are routinely stopping and searching every email you send or read for opportunities to target you with commercial messages. It’s not being done by humans, and Google argues that that makes it OK. Their robots troll through all of our private correspondence from any source, much like the NSA listens to all of our calls, and the FBI snoops on the activities of their ex-wives or girlfriends.

In the current class action suite against Google, brought on a Don Quixote hopeless basis, a bunch of fourth amendment desperados are trying to stop Google doing this. Google’s answer is that it’s essential to help them filter Spam and provide the commercial basis for the service… i.e. the ads. They aren’t the only offenders; Facebook famously extracts every last scrap of personal data and makes it target-able by advertisers with a similar justification… “we have to, to pay the bills”. We the users love free services and we don’t seem to mind that the price of freedom is eternal interference in our private information.

It’s a tricky argument, one essentially predicated on a commercial need rather than principle. Outlook doesn’t serve ads, it does filter for spam, but since it’s a paid service they don’t scan content to target ads. Is it reasonable to ask a judge to thread the needle of that difference… I have no idea, it will be interesting to find out. In an age when we have apparently quite happily surrendered our privacy rights to big government, is it a logical extension to surrender the rest to big business?