FBI Calls Playpen Case “Unprecedented in Scope”
A recent court case sparked heated debates surrounding tactics used by the FBI in the investigation into the now-convicted Steven W. Chase. Chase, as many know, created the “world’s largest child pornography website” called Playpen. He actively participated in administrative roles on the site as the site’s lead admin. Only few protested the convictions of Chase, two admins, and hundreds of current legal battles between site viewers and the government. However, whether or not the FBI overstepped legal boundaries is an ongoing dispute, both on and off the internet.
Not only is the world questioning the scope of the FBI’s investigative authority within the United States, their power beyond US borders is being questioned. In many law enforcement investigations into markets and forums—CP-related or otherwise—international authorities often collaborated. This time, some of the international authorities blindly collaborated without any knowledge of the investigation. Until the FBI sent them persons to investigate further.
The FBI, in the recent announcement published after Steven W. Chase’s sentencing, proudly announced the “unprecedented” nature of the case:
“The case—and the thousands of follow-up investigations it has launched—is unprecedented in its scope and reach, FBI officials said. It represents the Bureau’s most successful effort to date against users of Tor’s hidden service sites. And it has opened new avenues for international cooperation in efforts to prosecute child abusers around the world.”
The majority of the concern spawned from a single warrant issued by a magistrate judge in Virginia. With that warrant, the FBI received authorization to hack 8,700 or more computers. Federal public defender Colin Fieman said, following the October hearing: “We have never, in our nation’s history as far as I can tell, seen a warrant so utterly sweeping.”
Despite the fact that many courts suppressed the evidence (and many others chose not to), the FBI routinely avoided a complete discovery. The information they released came in decisively hand-picked pieces that failed to give the courts or the defense a full picture. They explained, however, that the information contributed nothing to the case. The technical aspects of what the NIT did once inside the computer would not have changed the end and final outcome. But do the ends justify the means when children are the bait? And what about when their abusers (and CP viewers) land in custody because of the end justifying the means? That’s the question raised in courtrooms around the country.
The Department of Justice took a controversial stance when they dismissed Jay Michaud, a schoolteacher caught in Operation Pacifier. “The government must now choose between disclosure of classified information and dismissal of its indictment,” a US attorney wrote. “Disclosure is not currently an option.” They have, however, strongly pushed for the conviction of the suspects and defended the FBI’s hack and case.
And this made sense to the FBI based on the number of suspects they caught. “Using a court-approved network investigative technique, agents uncovered IP addresses and other information that helped locate and identify users,” they explained. “Investigators sent more than 1,000 leads to FBI field offices around the country and thousands more to overseas partners.”
From court documents, we know that the FBI had a scope of 100,000 or more users. They gathered, at the most recent count, 8,700 IP addresses of Tor users who, at the very least, ended up on the site’s home page. The FBI, according to court transcripts, infected users at the login page or at a very specific thread that guaranteed a the user knew what he accessed. There seems to be a lack of communication as to where the NIT struck—possibly both locations.
In the press release Slashdot referred to as the FBI’s defense, the agency released their figures pertaining to cases that started as a result of the NIT:
- 350 U.S.-based suspects were arrested
- 25 producers of CP were prosecuted
- “51 hands-on abusers prosecuted”
- 55 US children identified or rescued
- 548 international suspects have been arrested so far
- 296 international children identified or rescued
“It’s ongoing and we continue to address the threat to the best of our abilities,” said Alfin. “It’s the same with any criminal violation: As they get smarter, we adapt, we find them. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, except it’s not a game. Kids are being abused, and it’s our job to stop that.”