Military photo scandal expands to anonymous image sharing website
By COURTNEY MABEUS | The Virginian-Pilot (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 17, 2017
An anonymous user of an adult messaging website posted photos Nov. 12 of a tattooed woman in workout attire and in her Navy working uniform. The poster asked for a "win," using online slang for a nude or sexually explicit photo.
"Stationed at oceana va big whore cheated on my man a few times already," the poster wrote.
"Those eyes and that body. Amazing. I hope there is more," someone replied Nov. 30.
Military brass is roiling under a photo scandal that came to light earlier this month when The War Horse, an online nonprofit news site, published a story about an invitation-only Facebook group of about 30,000, called Marines United, that became a platform for sharing nude photos and videos of female service members. The posts often were accompanied by obscene and harassing comments, along with identifying information about the women.
Now at least one other website is showing just how far-reaching the scandal may be, and how tricky policing it may be for investigators.
Business Insider reported March 9 that users of an explicit adult message board called Anon-IB have either posted or sought "wins" from military bases worldwide for months, a process known in cyber-speak as "doxxing." While posters can cloak themselves in anonymity, they've sought out their subjects – who appear to be largely female – in some cases by identifying them by name, rank and duty station, a violation of the site's stated rules.
A review of the site by The Virginian-Pilot shows that voyeurs have targeted women from several bases, commands and Navy ships that call Hampton Roads home, including Naval Station Norfolk and the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman.
Even as Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson sent a message to the fleet's leadership this week condemning the behavior, a post appeared seeking images from the Norfolk-based USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, citing its recent return from deployment.
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The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has joined a task force with the Army and Air Force to expand its investigation, spokeswoman MaryAnn Cummings said this week. She declined to provide additional details citing the ongoing investigation, but encouraged those who have found their photos used online without their knowledge to contact the agency using its website, via smartphone app, or by sending a text to 274637 or "Crimes."
"That information is important to us," Cummings said.
There's nothing new about the phenomenon of doxxing or revenge porn in which someone, often a man, posts explicit material, usually of a an ex-girlfriend or -wife. But this scandal is vexing for the military, which has struggled to shed its image as a male-dominated force in the face of sexual-assault cases within its ranks as it opens more combat roles to women.
"We can't afford to allow something to take root that has the effect of undoing decades of work," said Eugene R. Fidell, a former Coast Guard legal officer and military law expert who lectures at Yale Law School.
About 99 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 used the internet in 2016, with about 88 percent of all U.S. adults connected, according to Pew Research Center data released in January. Moreover, about 86 percent of those aged 18 to 29 used social media with about 69 percent of all U.S. adults now on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or similar sites.
Fitting a society of selfie-takers and over-sharers within the confines of a military in which service members are expected to uphold certain core values is a challenge. But, it's also no excuse for the misconduct, which retired Navy judge Rear Adm. Christian Reismeier called corrosive to trust and good order and discipline.
"It means that when Jane goes to war, she's got to worry about whether Joe has her back," Reismeier said.
One sailor said she was not aware until The Pilot contacted her that images of her were posted in an Anon-IB thread, adding that she'd never heard of the site. She said the non-explicit photos appeared to have been taken from her social media accounts.
The Pilot is not using the woman's name to protect her privacy. She said she did not know who could have been behind the anonymous post, but said she planned to report it to her command and declined to comment further.
Anon-IB did not respond to an email sent earlier this week.
"These guys would never take a picture of one of these people and hang it up in the barracks, and go, 'Look, I'm hanging up a picture of Jane.' They'll do it online," Reismeier said.
"Part of that is a function of they don't think they're going to get caught. Part of that is also the function of it doesn't seem to be as real to them when it's in a cyber environment."
California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, introduced a bill Thursday that would criminalize the non-consensual sharing of "intimate" images under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Fidell and Reismeier said the Uniform Code of Military Justice may already allow service members to be charged under Article 134, a wide-ranging provision that prohibits discrediting the service or violating standards of good order and discipline, or under other articles that bar stalking, sexual assaults and misuse of government equipment.
But the anonymity afforded by message boards like Anon-IB can make it hard to tell whether it's a fellow shipmate or a stranger behind the posts. Reismeier said, in his experience, technology companies have resisted handing over customer data to law enforcement.
Adam Massey, an attorney with the Brooklyn-based C.A. Goldberg firm, which specializes in internet privacy and fighting non-consensual porn, said some victims have successfully fought back by filing a take-down notice under the federal Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The act holds service providers exempt from monetary damages so long as they don't have knowledge of the infringement and also "expeditiously" remove the material.
He recommended that victims who find their images online first archive the information for law enforcement before fighting to have them removed.
Anon-IB has a take-down provision on its site, which also says it shall investigate and remove "without delay" content that's "flagged as illegal, unlawful, harassing, harmful, offensive or various other reasons" should it "in its sole discretion find it necessary to do so."
However, by late Thursday, none of the threads affiliated with any of the Hampton Roads bases or ships found by The Pilot had been removed.
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