FBI sting

Massive FBI Child Porn Sting Raises Legal Questions

By Peek & Toland on March 15, 2017

Society is shocked by online child porn and these offenses carry heavy federal penalties. However, a recent hacking operation has raised ethical concerns.

An article in Extreme Tech in December shed light on the so-called “dark web.”

Earlier in 2016, federal agents took down Playpen, an infamous child porn site. They ran a 13-day sting operation as part of International Operation Pacifier.

FBI probed child porn in operation

The article described the operation as the largest “hacking campaign” ever carried out by law enforcement officers. The server hardware of the operation was seized in an earlier operation but that did not disclose who the perpetrators were. The feds, therefore, took administrative control over the site itself using the authority of a warrant issued by Judge Theresa Buchanan, a federal magistrate.

By gaining access to the site, federal investigators were able to deploy sophisticated network investigative techniques, known in the business as NITs.

They planted malware trough Playpen to exploit thousands of people who logged into the child porn site over a period of 13 days.

Extreme Tech said federal agents effectively ran the largest known child porn site on the dark web for a period of time. Playpen was run from government servers long enough to identify scores of users. The agents recovered about 8,000 unique IP addresses in 120 different countries.

In the wake of this massive operation, more than 1,000 American citizens were arrested and charged under a single warrant.

Although the FBI’s technical experts were congratulating themselves on the success of this operation, there are some disturbing implications.

The Extreme Tech article referenced Rule 41, which recently went into effect. It enables the feds to take on sweeping search powers over computers without the requirement that a judge specify exactly whose computer is to be searched. These are “sticky legal grounds” Extreme Tech pointed out.

Government Hacking in Child Porn Operation Under Fire

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was an opponent of Rule 41 when it was passed in 2016.

He said the Senate had done nothing to prevent a massive expansion of government hacking and surveillance.

Wyden was referencing the amended Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure, which originated from an unelected advisory committee. The Supreme Court signed it in April and it became law on Dec. 1.

Rule 41 allows judges to sign warrants that allow authorities to hack into computers outside a judge’s jurisdiction. Federal judges can issue a warrant to search multiple computers without specifying whose computer is to be targeted.

We have written before about the powers of police search under the Fourth Amendment. However, investigators are in murky waters under Rule 41 in relation to the power to search computers.

If you have been arrested for child porn or in any other sting you may have rights. Call our Austin criminal defense lawyers today at (512) 474-4445.

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