Google labels parents as sex offenders for photos of own naked toddlers – NYT — Analysis

Parents had their accounts seized after the tech giant flagged them as child abusers – even after police exonerated them

Google’s stepped-up crusade against child sexual exploitation on its platforms risks destroying the lives of the very children it purports to save – as well as innocent parents – by leaving their reputations, their freedom and perhaps even their family unit’s survival in the hands of an overzealous algorithm, a New York Times investigation published on Sunday has revealed. 

The Kafkaesque horrors experienced by two fathers with young children were almost the same. They were labeled child moles for trying to help their little ones. San Francisco dad Mark and Houston dad Cassio thought nothing of sending over photos of their sons’ swollen genitals on the request of their pediatricians, a practice which has become totally normal in the post-pandemic paradigm. 

Thinking nothing further of it as his son recovered, Mark was rudely awakened by his Google Fi phone informing him that “Content that is harmful” – potentially illegal – had been discovered. Google refused to communicate with Mark after he attempted to appeal this decision. Mark was denied access to his email and contacts. Google is now the biggest corporation in the world. He had all of his data (including photos and video) locked in the Cloud.

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Google also found another video to trigger its alarms as it scanned these files. While the technology for detecting photos of abused and exploited children initially relied on a database of known images of sexual exploitation, Google’s relatively recent contribution to the crusade is an AI tool that claims to be able to recognize never-before-seen images of child exploitation based on their similarity to existing images.

Rather than bringing in a human moderator to verify the photo is indeed abusive before moving forward, Google’s process once it thinks it spots such an image is to lock down the account, scan every other image they have, and call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which prioritizes what it believes are new victims. Meanwhile, the wrongly-flagged images are added to the database of exploited children, so even more innocuous images of children like Mark’s and Cassio’s risk setting off red flags. 

San Francisco police, who’d opened an investigation following Google’s flagging of Mark’s video, secured a copy of literally everything in his Google accounts, from his internet searches and location history, messages and documents he had sent and received, and photos and videos stored on the cloud. They were able to access the exact same information Google used to call him a child molester and they closed the case.

Google didn’t seem to be as understanding. Mark asked the detective who was leading his investigation to help him, but the officer refused. His account cannot be accessed.

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Cassio’s case unfolded almost the exact same way, with Houston police dropping their case once he produced communications from the pediatrician. Google has refused to give his data back.

Google maintained its stand on the decision to flag the parents for child molestation and to block any data they had access, despite their parents being exonerated by the police. “Child sexual abuse material is abhorrent and we’re committed to preventing the spread of it on our platforms,” the company said in a statement, according to the New York Times. It is not known how many Child Protective Services cases have been opened on the basis of such “mistakes,” nor how many have risked ending with a child removed from the home or a parent arrested, as even the wrongfully-accused of child abuse generally keep silent about it.

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