FBI hacking methods used to bring down Playpen questioned by US judge


A US judge ordered the FBI to disclose if it received approval from the White House to bring down child pornography site Playpen, following three defendants’ complaints regarding the legitimacy of the network investigative technique (NIT) used by the Bureau.

The FBI described Playpen, created in 2014 on the dark web, as “the largest remaining known child pornography hidden service in the world” whose goal was “the advertisement and distribution of child pornography.” In one year from its release, the site had 215,000 members and approximately 11,000 weekly unique visitors interested in extreme child abuse, as stated by the FBI.

The FBI hacked it as part of an extensive investigation that went after over 1,000 IPs of members who exchanged sex abuse material. Playpen was very well hidden on Tor, a network that keeps user identity and location anonymous, so the FBI hacked the servers to infect thousands of computers with malware.

When the FBI got hold of the servers in 2015, they were not immediately taken down. The site was kept fully operational for 12 days from FBI servers in Virginia so users could keep exchanging material and be identified by IP address, once access was gained to their computers. Some 1,500 cases have been registered, with arrests in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Utah and Wisconsin.

The criminal procedure is under debate, as some judges say the warrant was unconstitutional. In contrast, a judge involved in a Playpen case in Virginia ruled “the Government’s acquisition of the IP address did not represent a prohibited Fourth Amendment search.”

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