The FBI took over the world biggest child pornography website in a sting operation intended to catch viewers of sexual images of children sometimes “barely old enough for kindergarten”, it has been revealed.
The controversial operation ran for nearly two weeks last year, when the bureau took control of the Playpen website in an effort to weed out users who would normally be hidden because they accessed such sites through encrypted addresses.
Agents have defended the dubious of ethics of a government agency running a child porn site by insisting there was no other way to catch offenders.
The ruse meant 23,000 sexually explicit images and videos – including one of a prepubescent girl having sex with adults – could be accessed and copied in the 13 days when it was effectively a government-run site.
More than 100,000 registered users visited the site when it was under the FBI’s wing, USA Today reported.
The US justice department says the operation enabled it to find the true computer addresses for 1,300 of them, 137 of whom have been criminally charged, according to defence lawyers.
The FBI decided to take over the site after discovering it in August 2014. Agents tracked it to a computer server in North Carolina.
One section of the site was labelled “toddlers”. By the time it was seized, Playpen had become the biggest “hidden” child porn internet site in the world.
Although the site was subsequently shut down, leaving it available to catch users meant that images could be copied and pasted while it was open and under FBI control.
The bureau had no control over how they were then re-distributed.
But the approach also breached previous justice department guidelines laying down that the child used in pornography is harmed every time such images are seen.
“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 involved in the operation told USA Today. “There was no other way we could identify as many players.”
But a lawyer for one of the men arrested, a former school teacher identified as Jay Michaud, has called for charges against his client to be dropped because of the methods used.
“What the government did in this case is comparable to flooding a neighborhood with heroin in the hope of snatching an assortment of low-level drug users,” the lawyer, Colin Fieman, wrote in a court filing.