Should companies such as Google and Facebook be allowed to monitor your e-mail and report to the government or law enforcement agencies about your behavior?

That is the question.

Last month law enforcement in Pasadena, Texas arrested 41-year-old John Henry Skillern after he allegedly sent an email to a friend containing child pornography via Google’s Gmail website. The tipster that blew the whistle on Skillern? Google.

Google alerted law enforcement in Texas shortly after detecting allegedly illegal images in Skillern’s Gmail account, as a part of what they call an ongoing effort to root out and eliminate child pornography online. In doing so, this has now gained national attention, as Google is really showing the world exactly the power it wields over users.

Under Federal law (18 U.S. Code ยง 2258A), online service providers have a duty to report child pornography to the CyberTipline of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) any suspicion of child pornography being transmitted through their services. However, this law does NOT extend to allowing providers the ability to go through user’s personal e-mail account and snoop to this extent.

Google, Facebook, and Microsoft to name a few… go one step further by policing their services such as search and e-mail, looking for this type of material and the users requesting it. Many of these providers use algorithms to test the information contained in digitally coded images for matches against images contained in the NCMEC database as child pornography. If images contain a match, Google and others turn the private information contained in the user’s account over to law enforcement for prosecution.

In an effort to calm the rift that this has caused in the technology industry, Google has indicated that they only use this software to scan for this type of material and for nothing else. They have also indicated that they are not using it to scan for “email content that could be associated with general criminal activity (for example using email to plot a burglary).” Basically, they are trying to assure you that if you are searching the word “cocaine” or “burglary tools” online that you are not going to be seeing your local police kicking your door in for suspicion of committing a crime…. or are you? It makes you wonder.

Honestly, if Google is indicating that they are willing to go as far as searching your e-mail for specific digital coding, what is to say that they are not using it for other purposes? There really is no assurance. Remember, it was only a month ago that the National Security Agency (NSA) was found using software developed by Google to spy on Americans and their Google accounts. Where does it end?

If anything, it tells you that you needs to change your e-mail service provider if you are using Google (Gmail) or Microsoft (Outlook). Think about it. Let’s just say that you have a friend from high school who loves to send out porn pics from one site or another or somehow you ended up on a list of SPAM Being sent out by some adult company. You receive a marginally young looking picture. You may not even notice that you received it, that is if you receive hundreds of e-mails a week like most people. Google turns it over to the NCMEC and law enforcement. You could find yourself needing a lawyer really quickly. Don’t think it could happen? It can.

I believe that all of us are fairly adamant about doing our part to eliminate child pornography. It is simply wrong on all levels. However, to what extent are you willing to give up your privacy to do so?

Hanni Fakhoury, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called Google’s involvement in scanning e-mail as “a targeted, narrow way to get at the problem.” However, he also warned of the potential dangers involved in allowing services like Google or Facebook to police their users.

Google already scans your emails and search queries for commercial purposes, presenting you with targeted ads. You give up that right to privacy in the terms of service.

Beyond that, Google also expresses the right to “remove or refuse to display content that we reasonably believe violates our policies or the law.” That means that they also scan your e-mail for anything they believe may violate their Terms of Service and make the decision as to whether you have the right to that e-mail.

However, again, Google claims that this “does not necessarily mean that we review content, so please don’t assume that we do”. But they retain the rights to do so if they choose.

The concerns about this kind of corporate surveillance aren’t abstract. Earlier this year, Microsoft admitted in federal court documents that it forced its way into a blogger’s Hotmail account to track down a leak of proprietary software.

Microsoft pointed to its terms of service in justifying the search. But after the incident sparked criticism online, the company pledged that it would no longer investigate customer accounts following reports of stolen property, and would instead refer such issues to law enforcement.

When all is said and done, if you agree to the Terms of Use with Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and others, you voluntarily sign away your Fourth Amendment rights to unreasonable search and seizures.

If you think that Google has gone as far as they are going to go, they are just getting started. We are barely in the third decade of global Internet usage. Give it time and you will find it hard to find a service provider that doesn’t go through your personal e-mail and everything else you do online.

If you are concerned about your privacy, I would suggest you use encrypted e-mail providers or software such as Symantec’s Pretty Good Privacy (PGP). There are many others out there.

Good luck.