Georgina Guedes

Google caught a paedophile!

2014-08-04 13:16

Georgina Guedes

A couple of weeks ago, my sister-in-law arrived from New Zealand to visit her family and friends in South Africa for a couple of weeks. She had e-mailed us to ask if we could collect her from the airport, and told us what time her flight would land. She attached her itinerary.

I planned to have a look at her itinerary a couple of hours before she was due to arrive, so that I could get the flight number and check that she was on time. But before I’d even sat down at my desk that morning, my Samsung Galaxy S4 had brought up the flight number and let me know the actual arrival time.

I was rather surprised. I know Gmail reads my mails, but I hadn’t really thought about the fact that they are also opening my attachments. Before I do. And then feeding the information into the whole Android ecosystem.

In the case of my sister-in-law’s arrival, this was a great benefit to me. On the other hand, if I were running drugs or planning to bomb the government, Google’s nosy nature might be less appealing. But if we’ve given our information over to one of these internet giants, we’ve got to accept that they’re using it. For their benefit, and ours and sometimes for the greater good.

Do no evil

This is why I was so surprised to hear that there is a backlash against Google for tipping off the US authorities that one of their users – a registered sex offender – was sending and receiving child pornography. Surely an organisation that’s doing exactly what it has always said it does, that stumbles across one of the more heinous crimes that a human can commit, and reports that crime to the authorities, is doing no evil?

Google states in its terms and conditions that it does analyse emails. And Google has publicised its stance against child sexual abuse since 2006. So, whoops, sorry Mr Paedophile, it looks like you sent the wrong private information on the wrong internet giant’s network. And there’s really no ambiguity around child pornography or abuse that the rest of the world can use as a basis for objecting.

The thin end of the wedge

However, I do acknowledge that having a large corporation as the arbiter of what’s permissible and what isn’t can pose some ethical problems. What about teenagers talking about smoking a joint on a Saturday night? What about someone talking about breaking the speed limit? What about choosing sides in a political struggle in which both sides are causing lives to be lost? What about men taking child brides in countries where it’s legal?

While anyone that puts information up on Facebook, Twitter or Gmail – or any other social media or cloud platform – has to accept that Big Brother is watching (and actually, I have friends who worked in support at some of South Africa’s leading ISPs, and you’d better believe they are reading your mails too), chances are that a weekend spliff isn’t going to be deemed problematic enough to warrant a knock on your door.

I’m glad that Google caught the paedophile. And as a Gmail user, I don’t feel that this constituted an abuse of a position that they’ve publicly taken anyway. But these questions are going to come up time and again as we debate the realities of ethics and privacy in this un-private world in which we live. Especially since we continue to benefit from things like flight arrival times appearing on our smart phones.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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