By 1st Lt Trey Lowman, 80th Operations Support Squadron / Legal Office
/ Published July 07, 2015
Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas --
Younger Airmen know what I'm talking about. Older folks, your kids likely know what I'm referring to - I had to get that jab in there - as Tinder, the social dating app for smartphones. The premise is simple. Users create their accounts and based on geolocation, strangers' profiles pop up.
Users can swipe to either the left or right. Swiping left is a guilt free "see ya!" If both the user and the stranger swipe right, they have the opportunity to exchange messages. While this appears to be innocent fun at the forefront of today's technology-saturated dating scene, a much more insidious possibility arises.
So here is Airman X, talking to a lovely girl - and yes - they both swiped right. They exchange messages, he gives her his cell phone number and they begin texting. The rest is history, right?
What if the stranger is not actually of consenting age? What if the eager adult proceeds to send explicit texts or images to the minor?
Far too often people lie about their age, which opens the door to a dark, likely criminal, hallway. Among the numerous sexual charges outlined in Article 120, Uniform Code of Military Justice, lies Indecent Liberty with a Child.
In layman's terms, any adult who engages in inappropriate sexual language with the intent to further his or her own sexual satisfaction is subject to criminal prosecution. The adult is culpable even if there was no sexual contact with the minor.
This, however, opens a broader question. For example, user and stranger are texting and the stranger informs the user that he or she is not yet an adult but the user is confident no one will find out. This is perhaps the greatest misconception people who use the internet for inappropriate purposes hold. Every text message, every photo, everything leaves a digital footprint an investigating authority can locate.
Basic internet anonymity simply isn't a reality nowadays.
Take, for instance, the recent account of Air Force pilot Christopher Everding, Brevard County, Florida, who entered a chat room seeking a sexual encounter with a minor. After exchanging messages spanning several weeks, Everding decided to drive to a prearranged location to meet, who he thought was the minor, but upon arriving, quickly realized he had been conversing with an undercover agent. He was taken into police custody and has been charged with attempting to entice a minor to engage in illicit sexual conduct.
It, frankly, doesn't take a ton of common sense to realize one shouldn't be having this conversation with someone underage, but the real pitfall is that people truly believe their online activity is secret, anonymous and will fly under the radar.
According to Detective Raymond Ramsey, 82nd Security Forces Squadron at Sheppard, local police agencies continually monitor social media. Oftentimes, police units use officers who, among other duties, actively participate on dating websites in order to snag sexual predators.
Predators you ask? It was just a text message. To be blunt, there is no excuse for an adult to engage in sexual activity with a minor -- these predatory acts manifest in a wide spectrum of behavior, but common to all of them are the sexual gratification of the perpetrator.
In addition to actively - or passively - seeking sexual encounters with minors, there have been Airmen who, as Detective Ramsey puts it, get caught up in 'sextortion' cases. The premise is simple. Airman X gets a message from a pretty girl and she asks to meet him on a video-capable social media platform. She undresses for him, but it turns out this is a video recording. Afterwards, she attempts to extort money under threat of releasing the footage of him in a compromising position. Airman X doesn't want to get in trouble, so he obliges and sends funds to the stranger.
Young Airmen who are new to the military are particularly vulnerable targets for these types of plots. Simply put, "Limit the amount of information you put online," Detective Ramsey warns. Soliciting young girls, or boys, is a criminal act.
Bear with me; I do not intend the following statement to sound self-righteous. We, as Airmen, chose to put our lives on the line for this Country. We, therefore, must hold ourselves to a higher standard. That standard even applies when we are alone in our rooms at night, searching the internet. Chances are if you are online talking to a stranger who isn't of age, that individual is likely an undercover officer.
While Tinder and other smartphone applications of the sort aren't going anywhere anytime soon, use extreme discretion and know that everything you send into cyberspace is traceable. Instead of swiping right or left, hold yourself accountable and keep your intentions within the parameters set forth in the law.