FBI: We Shut Down the Worst Part of a Child Porn Site Before Our Sting Operation

In February 2015, the FBI took control of a child pornography site, and ran it from a government server. But an FBI agent says they did close one of the most egregious sections straight away.

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Oct 7 2016, 3:44pm

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In February 2015, the FBI assumed control of Playpen, one of the largest child pornography sites on the dark web. Instead of shutting the site down immediately, however, the agency briefly ran it from its own servers, a move that legal experts have criticised.

But it may not be that black and white. According to a recently filed declaration from an FBI agent who worked on the investigation, the agency did close down one particularly egregious part of the site straight away: the section reserved for the producers of child pornography.

"The 'Producer's Pen' was a section of the Playpen website that encouraged members to produce and share new child pornography," FBI Special Agent Daniel Alfin wrote in his declaration. Alfin is currently assigned to the Violent Crimes Against Children Section at FBI Headquarters.

"The 'Producer's Pen' was closed immediately after the FBI seized control of Playpen," Alfin continued.

The issue was brought up in court documents because federal public defender Colin Fieman, who is working on several Playpen related cases, is trying to get more information about what exactly happened when the FBI took control of the site: did the FBI improve the efficiency of Playpen, as another lawyer claimed? Did running a child pornography site conform to the Department of Justice's own policies?

In one instance, Fieman points to a post made by an undercover FBI agent while Playpen was under government control, which hinted that the Producer's Pen would shortly be coming back online. But Alfin said that was just a ruse.

"Postings made by the undercover FBI Agent indicating that the section would eventually return were intended to keep users from discovering the law enforcement takeover. At no point in time was the 'Producer's Pen' brought back online," Alfin wrote.

When the FBI took over Playpen, the agency deployed a network investigative technique—a piece of malware—in an attempt to identify the site visitors. This malware grabbed a suspect's IP address, as well as other technical information about their computer. Armed with the IP, investigators subpoenaed internet service providers for subscribers records, and then got warrants to search each suspect's home.

The FBI hacked over 4000 computers all over the world, and prosecutors have filed charges against at least 180 individuals in the US. The FBI identified at least 35 alleged "hands-on" child sexual offenders, as well as 17 suspected producers of child pornography.