(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) In this photo taken April 19, 2017, Andrew Traver, director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) speaks during an interview at Marine Corps Base Quantico, in Quantico, Va.
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The investigators are reviewing seemingly endless images to ferret out those they can link to the military and that appear to have been posted without permission.
Still, investigators have made headway.
Marine nude photo scandal rattles Corps
— In a cramped office at the Marines’ Quantico base outside Washington, about 20 investigators sit elbow to elbow, staring into their computers as images of naked men and women flash across the screens. MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va.
All the data on a website can be stripped and each photo reviewed to determine if it includes a military uniform, a male or female, signs of consent. They’ve developed new tools and software to analyze photos more quickly. NCIS’ cyber experts are providing help sorting through the massive reams of data.
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That leaves just a small number of people who could potentially be prosecuted for crimes such as extortion and stealing or hacking into someone’s computer hard drive. The overwhelming majority are selfies or photos subjects posed for and then voluntarily shared, which is not illegal even under military code.
This is Task Force Purple Harbor. Five Marines have received administrative punishments so far, but no details have been provided. What began as a response to military members posting nude photos online has morphed into a growing criminal investigation that now includes 21 felony cases and more than 30 others referred to Marine commanders for possible administrative action.
In four cases, facial recognition software has helped identify victims. They want to know if any of their intimate photographs ended up on the largely private websites without their consent. One woman confirmed an image was of her. More than a dozen military members — mostly women — have asked the task force for help. The other three are still checking.
“As law enforcement, we can’t do that, and they know it,” Evans said.
One is a gorilla wearing an NCIS hat with a sign saying “add me.” Others mimic Facebook pages, saying they are open to “Friends and NCIS” or “Only Media and NCIS.” He described some of the internet memes online that taunt the investigators.
“If you do that eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week, you get pretty burned out,” NCIS Director Andrew Traver said in an interview. New agents cycled in after the first month, he said, “just because of the burnout factor, especially the ones that are doing the image review.”
The objective of this disturbing sleuth work: Rooting out the extent of a nude photo-sharing scandal that has rocked the Corps, embarrassed its leaders and spread to other military services. And the sheer scope of the job is daunting.
“It’s another realm that we hadn’t really seen before.” “Now that we’re sensitized to this, this will become another aspect of that type of work that we do in cyberspace,” Traver said.
A process that once took 40 seconds now takes only five to 10.
For the investigators, men and women, it is a broad and grueling process. More than half are of men. They’ve pulled more than 150,000 nude or semi-nude images. Agents from all four services and the Coast Guard have scoured close to 200 different websites. They’ve identified 20,000 with a possible military connection.
“People that are posting and reposting, generally are not posting under their real name and some people are posting under multiple identities,” said Traver. “It’s very difficult for us to find the origin, to find the person that started the whole chain.”
When an investigator does secure an invitation into a closed website, Traver added, “we don’t last long.” When the hosts see that someone isn’t posting photos or making comments, the person is kicked out.
On the walls are white boards with statistics, crime lists and a montage of social media messages directed to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
After two months, Traver said, the investigation has slowed. They’re now working more on individual cases than on the initial internet photo search.
Suspected crimes include extortion, stalking, threats and theft of photos. They’ve opened 21 criminal cases. Sixteen suspects have been identified: nine active duty Marines, two Marine reservists, three Navy sailors, one Navy reservist and a civilian.
Tucked between the keyboards are cups, scattered papers, Fig Newtons, a cereal box. In the computer room, agents stare into their computer screens for hours a day.
Traver said it sometimes takes only an hour-and-a-half for someone else to post a naked or semi-nude photo in response. Perpetrators are getting quicker, too. The task force has seen cases when someone has posted a photo online of a military member in uniform, snapped perhaps in the chow hall or on base, and then asked for naked images of that person.
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It’s the kind of investigation that could go on forever. And the anonymity of the internet makes it difficult to identify either suspects and victims. A simple word search of “uniformed military nude” got nearly 80 million hits, Traver told The Associated Press during the interview in his Quantico office.
It’s a moving target. Site hosts shut pages down and open new ones, often within a day or two. The websites are usually private and require an invitation, which is vetted by hosts demanding a “tax.” The tax, or entry requirement, is usually a naked photo, said Curtis Evans, chief of the NCIS criminal operations division.