A registered sex offender in Florida has been arrested for allegedly targeting teenagers on a Bible app.
Officials have accused Douglas Earl Kersey, 50, of using the YouVersion Bible App to solicit young girls at a Hillsborough County Christian youth group, according to an arrest warrant reviewed by ABC News’ Tampa Bay affiliate. Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) began investigating Kersey after a member of the youth group reported the man’s strange activity to authorities in late September.
The court documents reportedly state the tipster told FDLE that Kersey was using the Bible app to “befriend young teenage girls in their church and communicate with them online.”
According to ABC News, the tipster observed that Kersey had sent friend requests to minors in their church group, so they searched his name on on the sex offenders registry, then decided to take action.
“I did not even know that they could friend request and converse on that app,” HCSO Detective Theresa Grooms told ABC News. “You have young ladies that are meeting in a youth group to study the Bible, study the church activities and you have a registered sex offender who has projected himself into that group.”
As a registered sex offender, Kersey was reportedly supposed to disclose to local law enforcement the email addresses and social media accounts he is using. That apparently includes his Bible app activity, according to ABC News, which notes that failing to report this information is a third degree felony.
Kelsey reportedly admitted to investigators he used the app and that he did not inform HCSO of his email account.
YouVersion claims its Bible app has been installed nearly 400 million times. In addition to containing sacred texts, the app features digital Bible study programs and has a social media component that encourages users to discusses the scriptures. Last month Cnet published an article about “religious apps with sinful permissions requests,” which pointed out that YouVersion’s app is “notorious for privacy violations and dangerous data collection.”
In 2013, Slate reported that YouVersion captured such a high volume of user data that Google offered offered up its own engineers to help the YouVersion’s parent company “sort out how to store and analyze the flow” of data.
YouVersion Bible app creator Bobby Gruenewald told Cnet last month that YouVersion has reduced its data collection since the 2013 Slate report. But this recent arrest shows there are other concerns the app should address in order to protect its users. YouVersion did not respond to a Gizmodo request for comment on how it would respond to the recent allegations that a sexual predator used its app to target teenagers.
Updated 11/7/19 2 p.m. ET: In a statement shared with Gizmodo, YouVersion founder Bobby Gruenewald said the social media feature “was built in a way to protect users and provide an environment to discuss the Bible within trusted relationships” and Kersey’s alleged activity violated the app’s terms of service.
“We are saddened by and condemn the actions of any user who attempts to get around these measures,” Gruenewald added. “In this case, we applaud the vigilant church member who spoke up when they saw inappropriate friendships being initiated. As technologies advance and our own features expand, we continue to prioritize creating a safe environment for our global YouVersion community.”