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App's gender-swap filter inspires sting operation

Since its launch in May, Snapchat's gender-swap filter, which allows users to see what they would look like as a stereotypical man or woman, has inspired countless pranks and crude jokes, sparked a debate about gender norms, and doubled the app's install rate.

It's also led to the arrest of one California cop.

After learning that a female friend of his was molested as a child, Ethan, a college student in the San Francisco Bay area, was feeling frustrated and upset. The 20-year-old, who asked that his last name not be used because he fears retaliation, told NBC Bay Area in an on-camera interview that he channeled his anger into a new form of digital vigilante justice last month — one that he may have pioneered.

In May, using Snapchat's gender-swap filter, he took a photograph of himself as a woman. Though he theoretically could have stolen a profile picture from a random woman on the internet, creating a unique image with the app meant that photo couldn't easily be traced back to its rightful owner with a simple Google image search. The filter replaced his short haircut with long flowing black hair, gave him full lips and flushed cheeks, and added a thick layer of black eyeliner and mascara to his eyes. Newly feminized, he created an account on Tinder, claiming to be a young woman named Esther.

Before long, "Esther" had a match — a man named Rob.

"I believe he messaged me, 'Are you down to have some fun tonight?' and I decided to take advantage of it," Ethan told the station.

The two chatted for about 12 hours, Ethan said. Their conversation moved from the dating app to Kik, a messaging app popular with teenagers. Because Tinder requires users to be 18, Esther's fake profile said she was 19, according to the San Jose Police Department. Once on Kik, Ethan, posing as Esther, told the man that she was only 16.

"We started texting on there, and it got a lot more explicit," Ethan said.

Screen shots of the conversation that were obtained by NBC Bay Area show that Rob initially told Esther that her age "might be an issue." But when Esther asked if he was "still down," he responded with the emoji of a man shrugging. "You won't even send [any] pix of you," he complained.

Esther told him she didn't want any pictures of her going around the internet. "I wouldn't show anybody," the older man promised.

San Jose police now say that "Rob" was actually Robert Davies, a 40-year-old police officer in the nearby city of San Mateo. He allegedly asked Esther to switch to Snapchat, where messages automatically self-delete. There, they "discussed her being 16 years-old, and chatted about engaging in sexual activity," a statement from the department said.

All along, Ethan told NBC Bay Area, he was mining Rob for small nuggets of personal information, so that it would be easy "for the police to track him down." He also took screen shots of their conversation, switching his phone to airplane mode since otherwise Rob would automatically be notified by Snapchat. Then he shared them with police.

After an investigation that lasted several weeks, the San Jose Police Department arrested Davies last Thursday and booked him in the Santa Clara County Jail on $50,000 bond, according to San Francisco's CBS affiliate. He has been charged with contacting a minor to commit a felony, which itself is a felony charge. It wasn't clear from court records if he has an attorney.

"Whether or not the person is 16 is irrelevant," San Jose Police Sgt. Enrique Garcia told KTVU. "If the suspect believes it's a 16-year-old on the other end, the suspect should have terminated that conversation, specifically when it talks about engaging in sexual activity."

According to the San Mateo Police Department, Davies has been placed on paid administrative leave. "This alleged conduct, if true, is in no way a reflection of all that we stand for as a Department, and is an affront to the tenets of our department and our profession as a whole," San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer said in a statement.

Though Ethan may be the first to launch a police investigation with Snapchat's gender-swap filter, there have been many other reports of people using the program to set up fake profiles on dating apps, usually as a prank or a social experiment by people curious about what it would be like to date as a member of the opposite gender. It's unclear whether any graduated to outright catfishing - a common romance scam in which people create fake personas to trick their targets into online relationships.

Ethan told NBC Bay Area that it was his first time using the feature to try to catch a potential sexual predator, and he didn't plan on carrying out a similar extrajudicial sting operation again.

"I was just looking to get someone," he said. "He just happened to be a cop."