Cross-posted from Smirking Chimp
First there was Google Maps, then there was Google Books, and then there was Google Glass. Now, apparently, there's Google Cops.
Last Wednesday, police in Houston, Texas announced the arrest of 41-year-old John Henry Skillern on the charges of possessing child pornography.
How the police found out about what Skillern was up to might surprise you. Google, using one of its many algorithms, discovered that he was using Gmail to send child porn to friends. The company then alerted the cops, who got a warrant, found the porn on Skillern's computer, and arrested him.
Now, there's no question that what John Henry Skillern is accused of doing is disgusting, immoral, and very, very illegal. If he's found guilty, he deserves whatever punishment the court sees fit to give him.
But still, the fact that Google acted essentially as an arm of law enforcement here is pretty disturbing, and it raises some big questions about privacy and security in a world where pretty much everyone communicates on some sort of digital platform.
After all, while we can all agree that child porn is a bad thing, what would we say if Google tipped off the cops that Skillern was cheating on his wife?
Believe it or not, adultery is still technically illegal, as in "against the law," in 23 states, including liberal ones like Massachusetts and New York. In Idaho and Oklahoma, adultery is actually considered a felony.
Of course, the idea that Google could soon start calling the cops on cheating spouses does sound a little ridiculous. But who's to say, now that Google has become an arm of law enforcement, how long that arm will reach? I mean, can we really trust a giant transnational corporation to have our best interests at heart?
Think of it this way. If Google is reading your email to see if you're sending child porn, what's to stop it from also reading your email to see if you're doing something that's much more morally ambiguous, something like buying and selling marijuana?
And what's to stop it from reading your email to see if you're organizing a protest against Wall Street bankers, and then tipping off the cops about that protest?
The technical capability is there for Google to do both of those things, and once you open the door to it or any other internet company acting like law enforcement, anything is possible.
When it comes to child porn and terrorism, most people are pretty willing to throw constitutional or privacy concerns out the window. Whether that's a good or a bad thing is open to debate, and but it's still a debate we should be having.
In today's brave new world of instant communication and digital connection, there's a huge potential for good. There's also a huge potential for bad.
Products created by companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are a boon to anyone looking to organize, protest, or do any of the things that keep our democracy healthy.
Ultimately, however, companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are looking out only for themselves and their shareholders, not "We the People."