A State Department employee pleaded guilty to a campaign of online sexual harassment that is as widespread as it is disturbing.
According to a statement released this week by the U.S. District Attorney's office, Michael C. Ford, formerly an employee at the U.S. Embassy in London, pleaded guilty to a slew of charges that included e-mail phishing to steal passwords, computer hacking, and creating a widespread cyberstalking scheme to harass hundreds of women in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Ford's crimes, most of which he conducted from his work computer at the embassy, are being called an "international sextortion campaign" by the D.A., involving at least 75 victims, many of them aspiring models and college students in sororities. Ford repeatedly stole sexually explicit photographs belonging to college-aged women, and threatened to release them unless the victims agreed to do things he ordered. According to the D.A., most of the time, he ordered victims to record sexually explicit videos of "sexy girls" undressing in locker rooms and send him the footage.
In one email released in a court affidavit, Ford, a married man from Alpharetta, Georgia, writes to a victim to show her that he has stolen her personal images, "Finally, I found you! What do you think? Nice ass!" When she asked how he got the photos, Ford replied, 'I'm a wizard, I have lots. Did you like it?" After at least one victim refused to cooperate, Ford sent her photos to her parents and brother.
"Ford engaged in an international sextortion campaign," said U.S. Attorney John Horn in the statement. "He tormented numerous women by threatening to humiliate them unless they provided him with sexually explicit photos and videos, and in some cases, he followed through on his threats. This case demonstrates the need to be careful in safeguarding personal information and passwords, especially in response to suspicious emails."
The sheer size of Ford's cyberstalking scheme is astounding: he reportedly hacked into at least 450 online accounts belonging to at least 200 victims, obtaining more than 1,300 stolen emails.
Ford was initially arrested last May at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia. He is expected to be sentenced on February 16, 2016.
This isn't the first high-profile "sextortion" case in recent years, however. Several sextortion cases in which the proliferation of social media has led to easily-hackable personal information. One 2014 survey conducted by Pew Research Center study found that a quarter of women ages 18-24 reported that they had been stalked online.