Friday, September 9, 2016

FBI’s massive porn sting puts internet privacy in crossfire

FBI’s massive porn sting puts internet privacy in crossfire

For two weeks in the spring of 2015, the FBI was one of the largest purveyors of child pornography on the internet.

After arresting the North Carolina administrator of The Playpen, a “dark web”child-pornography internet bulletin board, agents seized the site’s server and moved it to an FBI warehouse in Virginia.

They then initiated “Operation Pacifier,” a sting and computer-hacking operation of unparalleled scope that has thus far led to criminal charges against 186 people, including at least five in Washington state.

The investigation has sparked a growing social and legal controversy over the FBI’s tactics and the impact on internet privacy. Some critics have compared the sting to the notorious Operation Fast and Furious, in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives allowed the illegal sales of thousands of guns to drug smugglers, who later used them in crimes.

Defense attorneys and some legal scholars suggest the FBI committed more serious crimes than those they’ve arrested — distributing pornography, compared with viewing or receiving it.

Moreover, the FBI’s refusal to discuss Operation Pacifier and reveal exactly how it was conducted — even in court — has threatened some of the resulting criminal prosecutions. Last month, a federal judge in Tacoma suppressed the evidence obtained against a Vancouver, Wash., school district employee indicted in July 2015 on a charge of receiving child pornography because the FBI refused to reveal how it was gathered.

Similar motions are pending in other prosecutions in Washington and elsewhere around the country.

During the two weeks the FBI operated The Playpen, the bureau says visitors to the site accessed, posted or traded at least 48,000 images, 200 videos and 13,000 links to child pornography. At the same time, agents deployed a secret “Network Investigative Technique,” or NIT, to invade their computers, gather their personal information and send it back to the FBI.

According to court documents, between Feb. 20 and March 4, 2015, as many as 100,000 people logged onto the site, which was accessible only by using the anonymous “Tor” browser, which encrypts and routes internet traffic through thousands of other computers to hide the identity of a user.

Tor, which is used for private communications by government officials, lawyers, journalists, judges and others, was thought to be virtually uncrackable until news of the FBI’s operation became public.