Most people would celebrate the recent arrest of over 900 pedophiles by the FBI and Europol, but many digital rights groups, privacy advocates and defense attorneys are questioning the methods used by these law enforcement agencies to catch the criminals. That’s because the sting involved installing malware on the computers of suspected offenders.
How The FBI Caught the Pedophiles
The recent arrests were a part of a joint project by the FBI and Europol to take down a dark net pedophilia network known as “the Playpen.” The operation took over two years and spanned across 100 countries. Because the Playpen was exclusively housed on the dark net, users were largely anonymous, which required some clever tactics by investigators to uncover the identities of those exchanging sexual images of children. That’s when the FBI constructed their own malware to infect the computers of those using the Playpen in order to track and identify those sharing and creating child pornography. The malware would hack the computer of suspected Playpen users and then send information from those devices directly to the agency’s servers.
Legal Issues With This Technique
But many civil liberty groups believe the FBI may have violated the law by using malware to catch their prey. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out, the warrant used by the FBI did not identify any particular person or even a group of particular users of the website. In fact, the malware infected and spied on over 1,000 computers worldwide -all under one warrant.
Potential Consequences of Questionable Investigation Methods
While it’s easy for the public at large to overlook rights violations when they happen to suspected pedophiles, imagine if this same technology was used to identify people who illegally download music online or those who arrange drug sales on the dark web. For most people, viewing things in this light makes it obvious why many digital rights advocates believe the use of a single warrant to infect over 1,000 computers of potential suspects is an unacceptable abuse of power by the FBI. This case sets a dangerous precedent that could affect all internet users if law enforcement agencies are left unchecked.
Even the FBI Seems Wary to Own Up to Their Actions
In most of the over 200 cases from this investigation that have already began to go to trial, the FBI is choosing to leave out any evidence collected through the use of their malware because it could easily be picked apart by the child pornography defense lawyers helping the defendants. In at least one case though, the FBI even dropped all charges rather than reveal the code they used to catch the alleged criminals -most likely so they can keep using it in further investigations. On the other hand, the owner of the site was recently sentenced to 30 years after his motions questioning the legality of the search warrants were denied.
Other Issues with the Playpen Investigation
The FBI’s decision to use malware isn’t the only questionable action they took in this investigation. In fact, they are also being criticized for taking over the site and allowing it to continue to be used for two full weeks rather than shutting it down -meaning they willingly allowed thousands of images of child pornography to be downloaded. According to a lawsuit against the FBI by the suspected owner of the site, the agency even improved servers and helped attract new visitors to the site, increasing membership by 30%. Many argue that if this were a drug raid, it would be the equivalent of the FBI handing out heroin and cocaine to people who expressed no interest in purchasing drugs and then arresting those people after they tried the illegal substances.
The Supreme Court may ultimately decide the constitutionality of this search warrant and those like it. Law enforcement agencies claim they need to use cutting edge technology to catch cyber based criminals while privacy experts are concerned by these types of dragnet methods.
What to do When You Have Been Accused
Remember, a person’s rights don’t change based on what crime they have been accused of, but it can be more difficult to fight certain charges for crimes like pedophilia because of social prejudices against those accused. That is why it is so important to contact a top child pornography defense attorney as soon as you have been charged with a crime or believe you may be under investigation. Do not speak to police or federal investigators without your lawyer present. If you have been accused of any crime, please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation with Peter M. Liss.
Creative Commons Image by Richard G.