Nearly 900 members of a global ‘dark web’ pedophile ring sprawling Europe and the Americas have been arrested following a two-year investigation, the FBI and Europol reported after the website’s founder was handed a 30-year jail sentence.
Shedding light on the scope of the operation which is still active, the FBI revealed that in the US alone, 350 arrests were made as part of a wide-ranging investigation into Playpen – a secret website that is being referred to as possibly the biggest child pornography online dump that ever existed.
The arrests and other law enforcement actions related to the investigation were carried out “in countries far and near”, including Turkey, Peru, Chile, Ukraine, Israel and Malaysia, according to the FBI.
Europe accounts for the major share of arrests and convictions with 368 suspects being charged. A total of 870 arrests were made in connection with the case, according to Europol.
Over 300 children who had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Playpen members have been identified or rescued.
EU Commissioner for the Security Union, Sir Julian King, said “a hugely significant blow has been struck against one of the most heinous of crimes, arguably the worst of all, thanks to the excellent transnational cooperation of Europol with the FBI and US Department of Justice, as well as other law enforcement agencies around the world.”
Playpen’s founder, Steven W. Chase, 58, was sentenced Monday to 30 years behind bars. The site he set up in August 2014 boasted some 150,000 users worldwide until it was taken down by the FBI following a controversial covert operation.
The agency said it had uncovered the site almost immediately after it had been launched but lacked information to trace the location or identity of the site’s owner as it was rooted in the deep web, meaning the site was only accessible through special software such as Tor.
Tor grants anonymity to its users and thereby is often described as a convenient platform for illicit activities, such as selling weapons, drugs or disseminating pornography.
However, Florida-based Chase inadvertently slipped up, revealing his site’s IP address, providing law enforcement with all the necessary leads.
Two of Chase’s aides, Michael Fluckiger and David Browning, both US citizens – who served as administrators of the site – were each jailed for 20 years.
Through a subsequent operation codenamed Operation Pacifier, the FBI succeeded in tracking down hundreds of the site’s users, sending “more than 1,000 leads” to FBI agents as well as to European authorities.
The FBI has been criticized for what it called a “court-approved network investigative technique” used to unearth information about the suspects. It emerged that the agency, with court approval, seized and ran the pedophile website for 13 days in February 2015.
The FBI’s command of the Playpen site enabled the agency to infect over 8,000 users’ computers with malware and hack them. Notably, the site was said to be more efficient and even experienced a boost in audience numbers with the FBI in charge of its content.
Internet privacy experts found the FBI’s handling of the case highly questionable and contrary to privacy laws.
“The warrant here did not identify any particular person to search or seize. Nor did it identify any specific user of the targeted website,” Electronic Frontier Foundation said, calling into question the legality of the FBI’s actions.
However, the head of the European Cybercrime Centre (EC3), Steven Wilson, appeared to defend the controversial practice, saying in a statement that “If we operate with 19th century legal principles then we are unable to effectively tackle crime at the highest level.”
“We need to balance the rights of victims versus the right to privacy,” Wilson argued, praising the cooperation between the US and European law enforcement in the case.