The FBI operated 23 child pornography websites on the dark web to identify users with malware, according to an affidavit obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union.
It was previously known that the agency maintained the child porn website Playpen to help law enforcement identify its users.
Now, as Ars Technica reports, the FBI had not disclosed that it also operated 23 other sites “dedicated to the advertisement of child pornography, the discussion of matters pertinent to child sexual abuse, including methods and tactics offenders used to abuse children, as well as methods and tactics offenders used to avoid law enforcement detection while perpetuating online child sexual exploitation crimes.”
The documents explain that the websites were in the “normal course of the operation of a website” and that “Websites 1-23 operate at a government facility, such request data associated with a user’s actions on Websites 1-23 will be collected.”
Fred Jennings, a cybercrime lawyer, told the news outlet that while the paragraph doesn’t quite say the FBI operates the websites, there’s no other way to interpret that 23 websites are hosted at the government facility, with their and to their benefit. He added that it’s “clever phrasing on their part.”
Still, an FBI spokesman denied the report in a statement to Ars Technica.
“I would refer you to public documents on the Playpen investigation, in which we seized and operated a dark web child pornography site for a period of less than two weeks,” FBI spokesman Christopher Allen said in a statement. “That was an extraordinary investigation, and to my knowledge may be the only time that has occurred. So to suggest this is a common thing is patently not true.”
Another cyber expert told Ars Technica that the FBI is running at least some Tor-hidden child porn sites on the Dark Web.
“Doing the math, it’s not zero sites, it’s probably not all the sites, but we know that they’re getting authorization for some of them,” said Sarah Jamie Lewis, operator of OnionScan, a Dark Web analysis project. “I think it’s a reasonable assumption—I don’t think the FBI would be doing their job if they weren’t.”
Membership on Playpen rose by a third and it ran “much better” while it was operated secretly by the FBI, defense lawyer for Steven Chase, the original administrator of Playpen, argued in court in August in attempts to have Chase’s charges dismissed due to “outrageous government conduct.”
“The FBI distributed child pornography to viewers and downloaders worldwide for nearly two weeks, until at least March 4, 2015, even working to improve the performance of the website beyond its original capability,” wrote Peter Adolf, an assistant federal defender in the Western District of North Carolina, adding that the FBI’s management resulted in an increase in visitors and a growth in membership.
The Bureau denied making improvements to the site. In September, Chase was found guilty of of engaging in a child exploitation enterprise, advertising child pornography, possession of child pornography, and three counts of transportation of child pornography.