The name on the profile said 'Cian', but for the Tinder user swiping the world's leading dating app, something about the accompanying picture was unsettling. Was it...? It was.
The profile didn't belong to 'Cian Horgan', but to Ian Horgan, and as the judge who later presided over the case noted, there was a sharp contrast between the online depiction, and the "very different" reality.
Horgan, 38, has been on the Sex Offenders Register for well over a decade, since his conviction for the rape and manslaughter of beautician Rachel Kiely in Ballincollig in 2000.
Gardaí believe this is the first time a sex offender has been convicted of joining Tinder under a false name, but while Horgan — who has lived in Macroom and in Limerick in recent times — returned to prison, the case turned a fresh focus on how to police and monitor those responsible for sex crimes in the internet age.
Horgan first came before the court in relation to the alleged breach of the Sex Offenders Act in early June last year. The Cian Horgan profile had been active for just a few days.
According to one person familiar with the investigation, "It came in from a Tinder user who recognised him. Only for that we would not have become aware of what he was doing."
From the very beginning, Horgan claimed the Cian name was a simple typo, that he had joined Tinder using a mobile phone and that it was essentially a case of clumsy thumbs.
He said the phone was subsequently lost, so for gardaí, gathering evidence meant having to apply to Tinder for relevant information about the application process — something that proved difficult.
In court, investigator Det Garda Derek Mulcahy told Judge James McNulty that he had visited Tinder's Irish office in Swords and that in effect, no one was there. It meant having to apply to Tinder in America for the data, a process that had to be made through the central authority, in this case, the US Justice Department.
Ultimately, it took eight-plus months and when the case wended its way back to Macroom this month, Horgan had changed his plea, but still maintaining 'Cian' was a typo.
And his solicitor, Sean Cahill, suggested information that had had come from Tinder was "inconclusive".
Theunderstands Tinder was co-operative with gardaí, but the process was laborious and slow. Yet in any similar future case, it is expected gardaí would follow the same procedure.
There is no requirement for a sex offender to disclose their criminal record, in private or in public, when accessing the platform, with Tinder adopting a position that it is not the police.
A spokesperson for the platform said: "Anyone that joins Tinder does so by agreeing to our community guidelines. Any breach of these could result in profiles being banned.
"Additionally, we encourage all our members to report anyone that is not adhering to these guidelines so we can investigate further.
"Last year the reporting tool was updated to make this even easier and can be done from desktop and app. Additionally, you do not need to have a Tinder account to report a profile on Tinder."
Those guidelines include no nudity or sexual content, no harassment, no hate crime, among other things. As for impersonation, it says: "Be yourself! Don’t pretend to be someone else."
But for Caroline Counihan, the legal director of the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland: "This clearly quite easy access to platforms for sex offenders — convicted sex offenders — is an issue.
"It doesn't seem to be addressed directly in either of the two big bills before the Oireachtas at the minute, viz the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2021 — finished in Seanad, due to go on to Dáil stages — or the Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill 2021 — about to start committee stage in Dáil and then go on to Seanad stages," she says.
"All that said, this is just exactly the sort of issue which should be covered and in some detail in the eventual codes of practice for ISPs which the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill focuses so much attention and adherence to which they will police — so I don’t think it is an issue just for [the Department of] Justice, but also for the department overseeing that Bill – Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sports and Media."
Noeline Blackwell, chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, acknowledges there was no order preventing Horgan using the internet in general or social media in particular, but she has broader concerns.
"If we leave aside the recent breaches, then our legal system says that once a person has served their sentence for a crime, they don't have to do more," she said.
"The difficulty that An Garda Síochána had getting the information brings me to a slightly different point. I think Horgan 'authorised' the gardaí to retrieve the joining information from Tinder but they then have difficulty getting it from the US. If Horgan did authorise it, then I would have thought that under EU GDPR rules, there should have been full access under GDPR conditions. But I'm not a data expert.
"But what I do know is that all the tech companies, including the social media companies, including the dating sites, all can set up their own rules and make their own decisions at the moment.
"That's why the Online Media and Broadcasting Bill that's before the Oireachtas right now is so important. Its proposal to set up a media commission — including a dedicated safety commissioner — which will then establish codes of conduct and ways of behaviour that the companies operating in Ireland must observe is an important one. Those codes must look to concerns that AGS will have about access to material."
James B Dwyer is an experienced senior counsel who has worked on cases involving sex offenders. He said: "The requirements of the ‘register’ are only notification requirements. He could also have registered using the name Cian if he had previously told the gardaí of his intention to use that name. However, it was open to the gardaí to apply for a sex offender order to prevent him joining Tinder.
"I don’t think Tinder are under any statutory obligation to furnish gardaí with the information. How would they be able to know he was a sex offender and was using a false name anyway?"
The Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media has published the Report of the Expert Group on an Individual Complaints Mechanism, which would allow an individual to submit a complaint directly to Coimisiún na Meán (the Media Commission), the new regulator that will be established through the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill.
The move has been welcomed, but at this point the outlines of the new commission does not appear to veer into the area of internet access for those on the Sex Offenders Register.
According to the department spokesperson: "The detection and prevention of suspected criminal offences and the identification of suspects will remain the responsibility of An Garda Síochána. Access to data held, or which may be held, by corporate bodies for the purpose of investigations by law enforcement authorities is a criminal justice matter.
"In the online sphere, access to such data has a significant cross-border element which is why the EU has proposed to harmonise the procedures within the EU for accessing such data as part of e-Evidence legislation. The Department of Justice are responsible for engaging with this proposal on Ireland’s behalf."
The Department of Justice said current laws provide a wide range of tools to manage and monitor sex offenders in the community and that it was open to the courts to impose specific conditions on a sex offender as part of a post-release supervision order, including that they can’t use the internet or go on particular sites, including dating sites — known as Section 16 applications.
As for the the Sex Offenders Amendment Bill 2021, which is proceeding through the Oireachtas, proposed changes include reducing the notification period within which a convicted sex offender must inform gardaí of a change in name or address from seven days to three days, making provision for electronic tagging in the future and providing powers to gardaí to take fingerprints, palm-prints and photographs to confirm the identity of the person.
The bill also contains a proposal that would allow gardaí to disclose information relating to a person on the Sex Offenders Register, in certain circumstances, where they have information about a risk posed by a convicted sex offender.
However, this will not mean US-style mugshot advertising on the back of local newspapers. According to the department spokesperson:
"This type of targeted disclosure rather than more widespread advertisement of their identification avoids the potential for sex offenders to withdraw from engagement with post-release services and go underground."
There could also be "electronic monitoring" of offenders, but this will not mean a blanket ban on using the internet or monitoring their behaviour online, unless there is a specific and separate court order in that regard.
According to the Department of Justice spokesperson: "If an offender is subject to a post-release supervision order or a sex offender order that includes a curfew or a condition restricting their movement, electronic monitoring can be used to ensure compliance with that order. Electronic monitoring tracks movement and wouldn’t apply to an offender’s use of the internet."
A spokesperson for the Probation Service said: "We are aware of a small number of cases where probations officers sought an additional condition specifically relating to social media usage where this was seen as critical for effective risk management.
"We do not have specific data on the number of times such a restriction is sought or made by the courts; that information is not collated by the Probation Service."
But what if a sex offender wants to move on with their lives, Tinder and all? The main avenue for treatment and rehabilitation in prisons is the Building Better Lives programme, split into two parts across as many as 70 sessions.
Typically, eight participants attend each group at any one time, but while 17 people completed the BBL programme in 2017 and in 2018, rising to 21 in 2019, just nine people did so in the years 2020 and 2021, when it was impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, according to the Irish Prison Service, the primary reason for low participation rates is the strict inclusion and exclusion criteria, including admission of the offence and harm caused, stability of mental health and personality, sufficient sentence length, and moderate to high risk of re-offending. Treatment also typically occurs in the last two years of the sentence.
But new research evidence and European recommendations now include risk assessment at an early stage in the person's sentence, working with people who deny and minimise their offence(s), working with people with mental health disorders who have been sexually violent, and treating people in all risk categories and with shorter sentences for better outcomes and safer communities.
In preparation, the Prison Service submitted a business case through the estimates process for 2022 and secured 70% of the funding required, meaning it is now preparing to recruit psychologists to support implementation of the programme, although it is expected it will be mid-2023 before any significant changes are implemented.
Tinder points out that last year Match Group, its parent company, announced the launch of a law enforcement portal to support law enforcement agencies with their investigations. But when asked about the number of requests for profiles to be removed, a spokesperson said: "We do not disclose this information."
On the question of the monitoring of sex offenders post release, Noeline Blackwell says: "The current legislation is pre-internet, pre-social media and there is a real concern about how effective it can be.
"So it will have to be a mixture of the legislation being as robust and flexible as it can be: the guards being equipped and trained to understand and police online behaviour of people under supervision; the tech companies being held to some standard of accountability that they're not at the moment; and a huge increase in awareness-raising of the general public (including the tech savvy but sometimes very innocent younger generation) of the possibility of harm."
Caroline Counihan agrees. "In general, my experience is that gardaí supervising sex offenders in the community are pretty proactive and do make use of their existing powers," she said.
Gardaí are unable to say how many Section 16 Sex Offender Act 2001 orders have been sought or are in place and a Garda spokesperson said regarding accessing information from tech companies: "In general terms An Garda Síochána have voluntary protocols and access arrangements with online platforms for access to background information.
"For investigative purposes, court orders can be obtained to formally access this information and mutual legal assistance requests are made for formal assistance for investigative purposes where third parties are based outside of this jurisdiction.
"The management of content on online platforms is a matter for the platform providers."
It remains to be seen what new codes come into force and how they are applied. According to James Dwyer SC: "I suspect further legislation — which is cheaper than committing resources to the gardaí — may do nothing but further impinge upon the privacy of citizens."
The judge in the Horgan case, Judge McNulty, occasionally uses the phrase "every day is a learning day". But as he sentenced Horgan on his guilty plea, he sounded like someone who had done his revision, even if, as he said, the likes of Tinder were "outside the jurisdiction of this humble court".
On 'Cian' Horgan, he said: “The most serious aspect of it is the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that some innocent man or woman viewing the Tinder dating website might have been misled as to the reality of the person appearing on screen and assume he was a man of good character with no convictions.
“The reality would be quite different. “
- If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please click here for a list of support services.