Google finds illegal images in Gmail, leads to child-abuse arrest

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Google finds illegal images in Gmail, leads to child-abuse arrest

A man has been arrested in Houston and charged with possessing images of child abuse, following a tip off from Google, which spotted the illegal pictures in his Gmail.

The search giant contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in the US when it detected explicit images of a young girl in an email the alleged offender, John Henry Skillern, was sending to a friend, according to local news channel

The NCMEC contacted police in Houston, who were able to get a warrant on the basis of the information provided by Google.

According to KHOU, police found child-abuse images on Skillern's smartphone and tablet, as well as emails and text messages discussing his interest in children. In 1994, he was convicted of sexually assaulting an eight-year-old boy.

Detective David Nettles of the Houston Metro Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce told the news agency: "[Skillern] was trying to get around getting caught, he was trying to keep it inside his email. I can't see that information, I can't see that photo, but Google can."

Privacy concerns

While the outcome in this case was positive, it raises issues around privacy.

Email scanning in its own right is not a new activity for Google. Earlier this year, it amended its terms of service to explicitly lay out how it scans users' emails to provide "personally relevant product features, such as customised search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection".

However, it's the first time it has become apparent the company's anti-child-abuse image technology isn't just applied to online images, but is being actively deployed in Gmail users' inboxes as well.

Last year, it announced it was building a system to identify child-abuse images without the need for human verification and set up a US$2 million Child Protection Technology Fund to aid the development of "ever more effective tools".

Jacquelline Fuller, director of Google Giving, the arm of the company dedicated to charity work, added: "Google has been working on fighting child exploitation since as early as 2006 when we joined the Technology Coalition, teaming up with other tech industry companies to develop technical solutions.

"Since then, we’ve been providing software and hardware to helping organisations all around the world to fight child abuse images on the web and help locate missing children."

This article originally appeared at

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