FBI ran massive child porn website to catch pedophiles

© Kacper Pempel
The FBI took over and ran one of the internet’s largest child porn sites in a bid to catch thousands of pedophiles. One such pedophile is now suing the government on the grounds that the agency enabled him to access the site.

The Department of Justice recently acknowledged in court filings that the FBI had been running the website, known as “Playpen”, as part of a largely secret operation on the dark web. On February 20, 2015, instead of shutting down the website that they had seized, the FBI continued to run it until May 4 and infect users with software that revealed their identities.

The website had more than 215,000 registered users, and it had links to more than 23,000 sexually explicit images and videos of children, including 9,000 files that could be downloaded directly from the FBI’s servers in suburban Washington. Some of the children depicted in the illicit files were below kindergarten age.

Authorities were able to capture the identifying computer information of 1,300 users, 137 of whom they managed to bring criminal charges against.

One of the 137 charged, however, says that it’s really the FBI that’s to blame. In a court filing, a lawyer for Jay Michaud, a former middle school who was arrested in the sting, arguing 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.” The lawyer, Colin Fieman, asked a federal judge to dismiss child pornography charges against his client. The judge is set to hear arguments related to that that request on Friday.

The clandestine operation is a relatively recent strategy in the FBI’s fight against online child pornography, according to USA Today. Agents had previously prioritized keeping the images of children out of the public’s reach, due to the Justice Department’s reasoning that every time someone views the images a child is harmed.

However, the FBI acknowledged that their choice to provide the illicit material was one of the only options they had to bring criminals to justice.

“We had a window of opportunity to get into one of the darkest places on Earth, and not a lot of other options except to not do it,” former FBI official Ron Hosko, who took part in the first operation of this kind, according to USA Today. “There was no other way we could identify as many players.”

In addition to being criticized for violating the rights of people charged with accessing the materials, the FBI has drawn fire for distributing more of the illicit materials for more people to see.

“At some point, the government investigation becomes indistinguishable from the crime, and we should ask whether that’s OK,” said Elizabeth Joh, a law professor at the University of California who has studied undercover operations, according to USA Today.

“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?”

The FBI first carried out an operation involving a secret takeover of a child porn site in 2012, and it resulted in 25 users being charged with possessing child pornography by infecting their computers with malware that exposed their information. However, authorities may have had trouble actually pinpointing the real life identities of many of those charged, as is indicated by nine of them being named “John Doe” in court filings.