A worried father who shared photos of his toddler’s genitals for a doctor consultation ended up becoming entangled in an algorithmic net that sparked a nearly 10-month-long police investigation over child sexual abuse.
The father in California, who identified himself only as Mark, is still struggling to get more than a decade’s worth of his digital life back, including pictures of his son’s first years of life, emails, contacts and even his Google Fi phone plan, after his account was disabled.
His account was flagged for “harmful content” that was “a severe violation of Google’s policies and might be illegal” and disabled in February 2021, according to a New York Times report published on Sunday.
It started after the stay-at-home father in his 40s in San Francisco noticed his toddler’s swollen penis which was hurting him. The father clicked photos of the genitals to document the abnormality to consult a doctor.
His wife shared the photos with the nurse for a video consultation with a doctor as the Covid pandemic was severe at the time.
One of the high-quality pictures of their son’s genital also had Mark’s hands visible to show the swelling better.
It was only two days after sharing the photos that Mark received a notification on his phone and the couple realised a Google algorithm to tack child sexual abuse may have gotten triggered.
Banning him from the services, a “learn more” link listed possible reasons, including “child sexual abuse & exploitation”.
“Oh, God, Google probably thinks that was child porn,” the father told NYT, recalling his first reaction at that time.
He said he reached out to the tech giant, requesting a review of Google’s decision and explained his son’s medical condition.
His request was rejected and he ended up losing emails, contact information of friends and colleagues and pictures and videos that he had backed up on the cloud storage of the technology giant. His Google Fi account was also blocked, forcing him to get a new phone number with another carrier.
It made things worse for him as he was not able to get access to accounts linked to his Google Fi number.
“The more eggs you have in one basket, the more likely the basket is to break,” he said.
Mark said the San Francisco police department has started an investigation into a matter after the company flagged a video and a photo, adding that he was not aware about it at that time.
Almost 10 months later in December 2021, Mark received a letter from the police which stated he was investigated. The correspondence included copies of the search warrants served on Google and his internet service provider
He came to know that the search for “child exploitation videos” took place in February, within a week after he took those photos.
When Mark checked with an officer investigating his case, he was told “no crime occurred” and the case was closed.
The investigator, Nicholas Hillard, wrote in his report: “I determined that the incident did not meet the elements of a crime and that no crime occurred.”
Mark again appealed to Google, referring to the police investigation. But his account was permanently deleted after a notice of two months.
He said he has pursued suing Google with a lawyer, but decided it “was probably not worth $7,000”.
Google released a statement on the matter without referencing any details on the case.
“Child sexual abuse material is abhorrent and we’re committed to preventing the spread of it on our platforms,” it said.