Is Google the New Sheriff in Town?

2014 806 goo fwGoogle Cops (Image: Khalid Albaih / Flickr)

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.”

Yes, they technically have to worry about us because we’re their customer base, but given the level of cooperation between Silicon Valley and the NSA over the PRISM program, it’s clear that “We the People” are not the only thing companies like Google care about.

When you’re a big tech giant trying to do anything to stay on top, you need to have a good relationship with the powers that be. If that means sacrificing your customer’s privacy to stay in the good graces of the government, then so be it.

Obviously, our government doesn’t do a great job of respecting the privacy of Americans either. But the difference between a private corporation like Google and a government agency like the Post Office is that the Post Office is ultimately answerable to “We the People.” It’s a public agency that is subject to oversight and regulation by Congress, and can’t open your mail without a warrant issued by a judge.

We can debate all we want about whether or not Congress is doing a good job of regulating the Post Office, but the potential for checks and balances is still there.

That’s what makes the idea of Google acting like law enforcement so scary. Although Google would say that they’re merely complying with the law – Congress did pass a mandatory reporting requirement for companies that discover child porn – we really have no way of keeping our email providers in check unless they’re the Post Office.

There are really only two big solutions to this problem, and the first one is obvious: Stop using Gmail and start using an email service that cares about privacy. The biggest problem with that is that the companies that did offer secure email – used by Edward Snowden, among others – went out of business and destroyed their servers to avoid a subpoena from US law enforcement.

The second solution is a little more complicated, but still has big potential. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed letting the Postal Service offer banking services. I think we should start letting it offer email services.

By federal law, the Post Office isn’t allowed to open any mail sent First Class or higher without a warrant issued by a judge in compliance with the 4th Amendment’s privacy protections. If we let the Postal Service run an email service, we could extend those privacy protections to all electronic messages.

Back in the 18th century, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed a type of prison called a panopticon, which would allow one guard to see what every prisoner was doing without those prisoners knowing they were being spied on.

Today, thanks to the internet, the panopticon is as close to reality as ever. For now, at least, this has helped catch pedophiles like John Skillern, but there’s really no way to tell where it will lead next.

Again, once you open the door, anything is possible, good or bad.

We need to have a serious debate about this before the power of tech giants to act like law enforcement gets way out of control.