Is it ever right for 3rd parties to monitor users private content?

There have been two instances recently where it has been brought to the public’s attention that both Google and Microsoft have scanned users private content. The question is, is it ever right to do so?

On the one hand you have the breach of privacy of that user, on the other you may well be protecting the public. It’s a hard balancing act and it’s made ever more difficult when it involves children.

The two cases both involve a 3rd party referring a matter to the police because child pornography was allegedly found in or on their accounts. The first instance was last week when Google alerted police in Texas when it had discovered potential child abuse images on a users Gmail account. Google partners with the IWF (Internet Watch Foundation) to help proactively find and remove such images from the web.

The second was today when it was leaked that Microsoft had tipped off the police about content stored on a user’s OneDrive account, a free online cloud storage system. Microsoft’s Terms & Conditions clearly state it has the right to deploy

“automated technologies to detect child pornography or abusive behaviour that might harm the system, our customers, or others”.

The main issue for me is it depends on why the content is being scanned. I have nothing against any of the providers scanning content if it is to ensure that it doesn’t involve child abuse images and to help prevent the spread of such filth. It is easy enough to hash an image and check it against a database for known images or to use software that detects images, such as PhotoDNA. A helpful flowchart of how PhotoDNA works can be found here. What I do object to is when the scanning is used for anything more than to detect child pornography. Google openly admits that it scans content to:

“provide you personally relevant product features, such as customised search results [and] tailored advertising”.

This crosses a border for me. I don’t believe that Google should have the right to search through my private content just to provide me with better targeted ads, which I don’t particularly want to see in the first place. I had a choice and I made it – I only use Gmail for emails that have no personal content or private content of my own and I never stay logged in either. I will use a different email provider for personal related content. At the end of the day it is a free service and this is Google’s way of getting money back and making a profit but that still does not make it right. The saying that “nothing is ever free” is absolutely correct in this instance.

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