Internet

There is no doubt that the crimes were “distasteful” and the law needs to be applied to those who engage in child pornography.

But one of the nation’s top privacy organizations is warning that the precedents the FBI set in its investigation of the “Playpen” case is “likely to impact the digital privacy rights of Internet users for years to come.”

Because the child porn site operator – for some two weeks – was the FBI. And bureau also hacked thousands of individuals’ computers in its investigation, based on a single search warrant.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation said the FBI in December 2014 received a tip from a law enforcement agency overseas that a Tor hidden service site, which conceals the users’ identities, called “Playpen” was filled with child porn.

That case now has resulted in “hundreds of criminal prosecutions” in the federal court system.

EFF said “the issues in these cases are technical and the alleged crimes are distasteful.”

Read one of the top experts on porn, Dr. Judith Reisman, whose books include “Sexual Sabotage,” “Kinsey: Crime & Consequences” and “Stolen Honor, Stolen Innocence.”

That’s why little attention has been paid to the cloud over Internet users that could result.

“But make no mistake: these cases are laying the foundation for the future expansion of law enforcement hacking in domestic criminal investigations,” EFF warned.

The organization reported the FBI found the site’s IP address was publicly available and appeared to point to a location in the U.S.

“The FBI obtained a search warrant and seized the server hosting the site. But the FBI didn’t just shut it down. Instead, the FBI operated the site for nearly two weeks, allowing thousands of images of child pornography to be downloaded (a federal crime, which carries steep penalties),” EFF reported.

The FBI’s operation of the site has prompted the New York Times to question the ethics of the operation.

Wrote Corey Rayburn Yung, a professor of the University of Kansas School of Law: “If the allegations against the FBI are true regarding its control of the network for approximately two weeks, it actively participated in the revictimization of those depicted in child pornography with no possibility of controlling distribution. Such conduct is immoral and inexcusable. The FBI should have pursued its sting operations without child pornography distribution by utilizing alternatives such as virtual child pornography or by getting warrants based upon the identifying Internet information they could otherwise gather.”

At the Merkle blog, questions also were raised about why the user numbers to the site increased while the FBI was in control.

“If that is the case, the FBI must have had something to do with that,” said the commentator.

“There is a fine line to walk between shutting down child pornography and creating a honeypot to attract more offenders. In cases like PlayPen, it is of the utmost importance to get the platform shut down as soon as possible. The FBI decided to use it as a honeypot and attract more offenders, which were then deliberately infected with malware. In the eye of the law, there are plenty of red flags. But it is doubtful the DOJ will ever see it that way.”

EFF continued, “It’s what happened next that could end up having a lasting impact on our digital rights.

“While the FBI was running Playpen, it began sending malware to visitors of the site, exploiting (we believe) a vulnerability in Firefox bundled in the Tor browser. The government, in an effort to downplay the intrusiveness of its technique, euphemistically calls the malware it used a ‘NIT’ – short for ‘Network Investigative Technique.’ The NIT copied certain identifying information from a user’s computer and sent it back to the FBI in Alexandria, Virginia. Over a thousand computers, located around the world, were searched in this way.”

EFF said it appears “this is the most extensive use of malware a U.S. law enforcement agency has ever employed in a domestic criminal investigation.”

“And, to top it all off, all of the hacking was done on the basis of a single warrant.”

The report pointed out that the defendants now are fighting back, “challenging the tenuous legal basis for the FBI’s warrant and its refusal to disclose exactly how its malware operated.”

Some courts already have affirmed the FBI’s actions, a move that “if ultimately upheld, threatens to undermine individuals’ constitutional privacy protections in personal computers.”

Said EFF: “The federal courts have never dealt with a set of cases like this – both in terms of the volume of prosecutions arising from a single, identical set of facts and the legal and technical issues involved. For the past few months, we’ve been working to help educate judges and attorneys about the important issues at stake in these prosecutions. And to emphasize one thing: these cases are important. Not just for those accused, but for all us.”

Read one of the top experts on porn, Dr. Judith Reisman, whose projects include “Sexual Sabotage,” “Kinsey: Crime & Consequences,” and “Stolen Honor, Stolen Innocence.”

 

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