Paedophile snared as Google scans Gmail for images of child abuse
Hundreds of millions of email accounts are now being routinely scanned for illegal images, thanks to spophisicated new Google software
From 'Am I pretty?' to 'Why won't he have sex with me?', it's Google we ask about all our darkest worries. So how did a search engine become our closest confidant?
By Martin Evans, Crime Correspondent 8:10PM BST 04 Aug 2014
Technology giant Google has developed state of the art software which proactively scours hundreds of millions of email accounts for images of child abuse.
The breakthrough means paedophiles around the world will no longer be able to store and send vile images via email without the risk of their crimes becoming known to the authorities.
Details of the software emerged after a 41-year-old convicted sex offender was arrested in Texas for possession of child abuse images.
Police in the United States revealed that Google’s sophisticated search system had identified suspect material in an email sent by a man in Houston.
Child protection experts were automatically tipped off and were then able to alert the police, who swooped after requesting the user’s personal information from Google.
It is hoped the software will play a significant role in the ongoing fight against paedophiles who believe they can use the Internet to operate in the shadows and avoid detection.
Google, which has sometimes faced criticism for not doing enough to tackle paedophilia online, has been developing highly specialised software for a number of years.
In 2008 it rolled out new technology that helped the authorities trace those who were using its search engine to look for illegal images.
But while the company refused to comment on this latest case, the arrest in Texas confirms that the software is now being applied to scan the Google’s hugely popular email service
Google’s Gmail is the world’s largest free web-based email service with more than 425 million users worldwide.
It is understood that the software works by comparing images held in users’ accounts against a vast database of child abuse images which have been collated by child protection agencies around the world.
Each one of the images is given a unique fingerprint, known as a hash, which is then used to compare with those held in the database.
The system operates automatically and nobody working for Google is able to see any of the images being examined.
If a match with one of the images on the database is found a red flag is raised and one of the child protection agencies such as the UK’s Internet Watch Foundation or the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in the US is alerted.
Trained specialists at the organisations then examine the image and decide whether to alert the police.
While the technology will be seen as a huge boost to the fight against child abuse and exploitation, the ability of Google to look into people’s personal email accounts has raised questions for privacy campaigners.
Earlier in the year Google confirmed that email accounts were being scanned for content to provide "personally relevant" adverts to users.
Last month the National Crime Agency (NCA) announced that more than 600 suspected paedophiles including doctors, teachers and care workers had been arrested in a major crackdown on the trade in images of abuse.
While the NCA refused to discuss tactics it is thought experts had made a breakthrough in cracking the so-called ‘dark web’, a part of the Internet which has been notoriously difficult to monitor and police.