According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Tor is a service that allows a person to use the Internet anonymously. It has two components:


  • Software that must be downloaded to provided Internet anonymity; and
  • A network of volunteer computers necessary to make the service effective.


EFF reported that in December 2014 the FBI received information that a “Tor Hidden Service” site apparently located in the United States was hosting child pornography through a public IP address.


FBI Ran Child Porn Site


As we discussed in November 2017, the FBI undertook a problematic and controversial investigation of Playpen. Instead of shutting down the child porn site and collecting all available evidence of criminal wrongdoing as traditional investigative techniques dictated, the FBI decided to get into the child pornography business itself by seizing Playpen and operating the site for two weeks in early 2015.


In effect, federal agents became co-conspirators in the very crimes they were sworn to investigate and bring before the bar of justice. The agency legitimized the site takeover by securing a warrant. Still, how much damage was done to the victims of the child pornography during that two-week period cannot be measured, and probably will never be truly known.


Cyber-Sleuthing for Child Porn


The FBI used a non-traditional malware known as “Network Investigation Technique” (NIT) that allowed agents to search for and copy information from the computers used by individuals accessing Playpen. NIT allowed investigators to remove this information from the Tor network and forward it to FBI agents working out of Alexandria, Virginia. During the two weeks it was in the child porn business, the FBI accessed thousands of computers around the world and searched them for child pornography.


Once the FBI got the IP addresses of the computers visiting or taking advantage of Playpen’s criminal services, agents served subpoenas on the Internet service provider for those computers demanding the names and addresses associated with the IP addresses. The providers gave up the information.


FBI Became Largest Purveyor of Child Porn


This past August Boston 25 News reported that about 250 individuals have either been charged or convicted in the Playpen case. The Boston 25 report centered on one individual: Vincent Anzalone, a Brighton, Massachusetts native who downloaded hundreds of images of child pornography while the FBI was operating Playpen. He is currently serving an 8-year sentence in a federal penal facility.


“The FBI, itself, had become the world’s largest distributor of child pornography,” Colin Fieman, senior litigator for the Federal Defender’s Office for the Western District of Washington, told Boston 25.


Fieman, and a network of other criminal defense attorneys across the country, have aggressively challenged U.S. Attorneys prosecuting Playpen cases, telling the courts that the FBI’s “outrageous behavior” in these cases was criminal because real child victims were in the images and videos downloaded by the child pornographers.


“People were actively molesting children and producing new child pornography for the very purpose of sending it to Playpen,” Fieman said. “And the government, at a minimum, aided and abetted that” criminal wrongdoing.


Fieman’s charges are not legal hyperbole.


Boston 25 found that court records revealed that during the two weeks the FBI hosted Playpen, the site had 100,000 “registered users.” While a federal judge may have signed off on the FBI becoming quasi-official pedophiles and child pornographers, other reputable law enforcement officials view the FBI’s tactics as sordid and distasteful.


“That child is being victimized again and again at each viewing or each access of the image or the video,” former Boston Police Department lieutenant and current criminologist told Boston 25. “If they had sought my guidance or approval for an operation like this, I would never have considered it.”


Government Justifies Criminal Activity


The federal judge who gave the FBI permission to undertake the controversial investigation disagrees. Boston 25 quoted the judge as saying, “the FBI should be applauded for its actions in this case.”


The government has also defended the FBI’s conduct in the case.


The Department of Justice told Boston 25 that “at least 51 alleged hands-on abusers have been prosecuted and 55 American children who were subject to sexual abuse have been successfully identified or rescued.”


And, as pointed out in an October 23, 2018 decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the five previous federal circuit courts that heard appeals in the Playpen cases upheld the convictions of the child pornographers and gave constitutional blessing to the FBI’s handling of the investigation in their cases. The Seventh Circuit succinctly put it this way:


“… Every circuit that has considered the suppression argument [in Playpen cases] has rejected it, and so do we. Even assuming that these digital searches violated the Fourth Amendment, the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule applies.”


The appeals court continued: “… Faced with the daunting task of apprehending tens of thousands of individuals engaged in perverse crimes but cloaked in anonymity through their use of Tor, the FBI developed a sophisticated tool to unmask and locate those suspected criminals. The agency fully and accurately described the NIT to the neutral and detached magistrate judge who signed the warrant.”


We disagree.


You don’t catch a pig by joining him in the mud. The FBI had more traditional investigative techniques to break up Playpen without playing in the pen. As we have said, it is unknown how many children were sexually abused or exploited during that two-week period the FBI operated Playpen—children who would not have been abused or exploited had the agency promptly shut down the site.


A sin is a sin is a sin. God can forgive sins; the FBI cannot legalize them.