For nearly two weeks in 2015, the FBI operated what it described as one of the Internet's largest child pornography websites, allowing users to download thousands of illicit images and videos from a government site in the Washington suburbs. According to the USA Today story, this was at least the third time in recent years that FBI agents took control of a child pornography site but left it online in an attempt to catch users who officials said would otherwise remain hidden behind an encrypted and anonymous computer network. In each case, the FBI infected the sites with software that penetrated that security, allowing agents to identify hundreds of users.
The Justice Department acknowledged in court filings that the FBI operated the site, known as Playpen, from February 20th to March 4th, 2015. At the time, the site had more than 215,000 registered users and included links to more than 23,000 sexually explicit images and videos of children, including more than 9,000 files that users could download directly from the FBI. Some of the images described in court filings involved children barely old enough for kindergarten.
Frankly, I find it abhorrent that the government resorts to such tactics.
Previously, agents were instructed that they should not allow images of children being sexually assaulted to become public. The Justice Department has said that children depicted in such images are harmed each time they are viewed, and once those images leave the government's control, agents have no way to prevent them from being copied and re-copied to other parts of the Internet.
Officials acknowledged those risks, but said they had no other way to identify the people accessing the sites.
In a court filing, Colin Fieman, a lawyer for one of the men arrested after the FBI sting charged that "what the government did in this case is comparable to flooding a neighborhood with heroin in the hope of snatching an assortment of low-level drug users." He has asked a federal judge to throw out child pornography charges against his client.
Fieman said more than 100,000 Playpen registered users visited the site while it was under the FBI's control. The Justice Department said in court filings that agents had found "true" computer addresses for more than 1,300 of them, and has told defense lawyers that 137 have been charged with a crime, though it has so far declined to publicly identify those cases. Justice officials said they were unable to discuss details of the investigation because much of it remains under seal, at their request.
"At some point, the government investigation becomes indistinguishable from the crime, and we should ask whether that's OK," said Elizabeth Joh, a University of California Davis law professor who has studied undercover investigations. "What's crazy about it is who's making the cost/benefit analysis on this? Who decides that this is the best method of identifying these people?"
Allowing the download and possible redistribution of these images is counter to everything the FBI stands for. I don't care how many people get away – our government shouldn't be in the business of running a child porn website – ever.
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Digital Forensics/Information Security/Information Technology