Why Did the FBI Operate a Child Porn Site?

January 22, 2016   |   Carey Wedler

Carey Wedler
January 22, 2016

(ANTIMEDIA) The FBI is under fire after Department of Justice court filings revealed agents operated a large child pornography site for two weeks in 2015. The FBI originally hacked the site, called Playpen, to identify visitors. However, they continued to run it, leaving illicit images and videos of children not only available, but shareable, during the period they ran the site. It was the third time it had done so. Though FBI agents insist their tactic is ethical and necessary to catch predators, the practice faces scrutiny from critics who accuse the FBI of committing the same crimes they are trying to prevent.

When the FBI took control of Playpen on February 20, 2015, it had 215,000 registers users, and by the FBI’s own admission, it was the largest child pornography site in the world. Court documents show image and video categories included “toddlers” to “pre-pubescent teens.”

Located on the Dark Web, the website was only available through Tor, network software that makes users’ web activity virtually untraceable. To attain control of Playpen, the FBI employed hacking to bypass the site’s security. It injected malware into the site to crack the anonymity Tor provides. As USA Today explained, in 2015 and in two previous cases, “the FBI infected the sites with software that punctured that security, allowing agents to identify hundreds of users.” The FBI calls this a “Network Investigative Technique.”

When the bureau obtained control of the site, Playpen housed links to over 23,000 images and videos of children and 9,000 files that could be directly downloaded, albeit unknowingly, from the FBI.

Agents tracked the site to servers in North Carolina, and upon seizing control, moved those servers to their own facility in Newington, Virginia. According to Colin Fieman, an attorney for one of the users caught in the sting, 100,000 users visited the site while it was under the bureau’s control. The Department of Justice has said in court filings the FBI was able to obtain the “computer addresses” of 1,300 users, and 137 of them had been charged with crimes. It declined to provide further information about those prosecutions.

The DOJ has also said in court filings that no agents uploaded child porn to the site, though the documents admit the FBI did not take down any content and continued to allow users to upload child pornography. Further, agents were unable to prevent downloaded images and videos from being shared on other sites.

Though the FBI touted its arrest of a visitor to Playpen in October, admitting it operated the website for two weeks, the story did not receive widespread attention. In July of last year, Vice News reported on the FBI’s use of hacking to take control of the site, but the story has received more coverage in recent weeks as more court documents have emerged.

This is not the first time the FBI has hacked Dark Web child pornography sites with malware and used that control to lure pedophiles. The first known instance occurred in 2012, when the FBI hacked a child porn site that had servers in Omaha, Nebraska. FBI Special Agent Jeff Tarpinian admitted in court that the agency “relocated two servers to an FBI facility here in Omaha and we continued to let those child pornography run – websites operate for a short period of time.” The operation yielded 25 federal child pornography cases, however, nine of the defendants are referred to in court documents as “John Doe.” The anonymous names imply the FBI was unable to correctly track the true identities of users.

Agents again hacked a child pornography site in 2013, identifying the suspected operator, Eric Marquez, who is now expected to the extradited to the United States from Ireland, where he is a resident. The charges against him are sealed.

The FBI insists its tactics are necessary to weed out nefarious, criminal pedophiles.

We had a window of opportunity to get into one of the darkest places on Earth, and not a lot of other options except to not do it,” said Ron Hosko, a former senior FBI official. He was involved in one of the agency’s first operations of this kind. “There was no other way we could identify as many players,” he said.

Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr also commented on the operation. “The government always considers seizing an illegal child pornography site and removing it from existence immediately and permanently,” he said, arguing the FBI’s strategy of running the site was essential to curbing the spread of illicit content. “While doing so would end the trafficking of child pornography taking place on that one website, it would do nothing to prevent those same users from disseminating child pornography through other means.”

Even so, critics point out that the FBI is merely committing the same crimes it seeks to eliminate. Elizabeth Joh, a law professor at University of California, Davis who has studied undercover investigations, questioned the efficacy of the program: “At some point, the government investigation becomes indistinguishable from the crime, and we should ask whether that’s OK.” She added, “What’s crazy about it is who’s making the cost/benefit analysis on this? Who decides that this is the best method of identifying these people?

The FBI is no stranger to undercover sting operations that often employ criminal behavior. Agents have notoriously and repeatedly lured vulnerable individuals into contributing to elaborate terrorist plots. Though the plots are never carried out, the FBI uses undercover tactics to encourage subjects into committing enough transgressions to warrant charges — and to warrant  declarations that the agency successfully thwarts terror plots.

Child pornography, like terrorism, is an ill many Americans believe should be stopped at any cost. Though few would disagree that child pornography must be combated, the FBI’s willingness to perpetuate that very vice raises questions about the agency’s integrity and priorities.


This article (Why Did the FBI Operate a Child Porn Site?) is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Carey Wedler and theAntiMedia.org. Anti-Media Radio airs weeknights at 11pm Eastern/8pm Pacific. If you spot a typo, email edits@theantimedia.org.

Author: Carey Wedler

Carey Wedler joined Anti-Media as an independent journalist in September of 2014. Her topics of interest include the police and warfare states, the Drug War, the relevance of history to current problems and solutions, and positive developments that drive humanity forward. She currently resides in Los Angeles, California, where she was born and raised.

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3 Comments

  1. In the 1960's , when the COLD WAR was HOT , homosexuals were blackmailed into becoming spies and informants, for the authotities, in OTTAWA, the Capital of Canada – -

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  2. The John Doe's could be persons that are just not getting put in print as they know full well who they are but for political reason must be squashed. The talmud alone is one source of the disgusting practice of sex with children.

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