The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found on Tuesday that police breached privacy rights by searching images that were automatically reported by a Google algorithm before obtaining a warrant.
One of Google’s algorithms automatically reported to authorities four images that the defendant attached in an email. The algorithm had detected suspected child sexual abuse material. An officer of the San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (“the task force”) viewed them without a warrant.
The court found that the officer’s actions breached the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures on part of the government.
The court said that when the images came into the task force’s possession, the task force already knew that they were suspected child sexual abuse material. At that point, the task force was required to obtain a warrant to view the images and prosecute further.
The court’s opinion follows Apple’s announcement last month that it will scan iCloud photos of its users for child sexual abuse material and report suspected files to authorities. Privacy experts have criticized the move.
Tuesday’s ruling and Apple’s announcement raise broader questions about the intersection of algorithm-driven automatic scanning technology and privacy law. The Electronic Privacy Information Center said that the case “may lead the Supreme Court to review the important privacy implications of mass automatic file scanning programs.”