Why Did FBI Run a Child-Porn Site for 2 Weeks and What Does It Mean for the Future of Internet Privacy?

In the spring of 2015, the FBI arrested the North Carolina administrator of the "Playpen," a child pornography online bulletin board. However, the agency didn't take the website down. Instead, the FBI moved its servers to a warehouse in Virginia and continued to run the site for two weeks. That move initiated a sting called "Operation Pacifier, "which has led to the arrests of 186 people.


Operation Pacifier has generated criticism and controversy for multiple reasons. First, there's the issue of internet privacy. The Playpen was only accessible by using the unnamed Tor browser, which hides the identity of its users. Tor is used by journalists and government officials and was thought to be completely private and impossible to crack. But the FBI cracked it, and it won't reveal how. Mozilla, the company that offers the Tor browser, asked the organization to share its methods, so Mozilla would be able to fix potential privacy leaks, but a judge denied its request.

The ethical issue that is causing even more concern is that the nation's prime federal law enforcement ran a child porn site. And not only did they run it, users said they improved it. Defense attorneys allege that, while under the control of the FBI, the site increased its traffic from 11,000 visitors a week to 50,000. In a motion, Peter Adolf, an assistant federal defender for the man accused of being the site's administrator, writes that, "The FBI distributed child pornography to viewers and downloaders worldwide for nearly two weeks...even working to improve the performance of the website beyond its original capability."

A Vice Motherboard piece on the controversy cites someone in control of a Playpen administrator account who wrote, of the site while the FBI ran it, "I upgraded the Token Ring to Ethernet about an hour ago and things seem to be working a bit better.” “Yes, it is working much better now!" a user replies.

Recently released court documents show that defense attorneys conservatively estimate the FBI distributed one million illegal images.

The FBI's methods are also impairing the criminal prosecutions of the site's users. In May, Judge Robert Bryan threw out all the evidence obtained via the hack, in the case of Washington teacher Jay Michaud, an alleged user of the site. Bryan disregarded the evidence because the FBI refused to reveal details of the hack or provide Mozilla with information regarding Tor's apparent vulnerability.

Bryan is not the only judge to throw out such evidence. Information regarding Playpen defendants was suppressed in Massachusetts and Oklahoma as well.

“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," Ron Hosko, a former senior FBI official told USA Today in January. "There was no other way we could identify as many players.”

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