The FBI recently made a major child pornography bust on the dark net. By using a hacking method to trace IP addresses, the bureau was able to shut down Playpen, which was the largest known hidden child pornography service in the world. Playpen was originally launched in August of 2014, and it functioned as a message bulletin board for pedophiles. The dark net website attracted about 11,000 unique visitors on a weekly basis, and it had more than 215,000 individual accounts.
The process undertaken by the FBI was actually quite unique. The server running Playpen was first seized by the FBI in February of 2015. However, the FBI waited to shutdown the server. From February 20 until March 4, the FBI ran the child pornography website using its own servers. During this time, the FBI used a hacking tool known as a network investigative technique (NIT). By using this tool, the FBI was able to identify more than 1,300 IP addresses that belonged to visitors of Playpen.
A public defender representing one of the defendants accused of frequenting the notorious message board stated, “Basically, if you visited the homepage and started to sign up for a membership, or started to log in, the warrant authorized deployment of the NIT.”
The public defender went on to say that it is expected that more than 1,500 court cases will stem from the investigation.
He continued, “It’s an extraordinary expansion of government surveillance and its use of illegal search methods on a massive scale.”
The FBI is well known for using hacking techniques. The bureau has been known to exploit zero-day security holes, and it is heavily interested in making busts over the dark net. It is unknown as to whether or not the Playpen NIT targeted a zero-day flaw or some other sort of exploit. Either way, it’s fair to expect the FBI to use its powers to make other busts over the dark net in the future.