The FBI has embarked on a new strategy to catch people dwelling in the depraved world of online child pornography, and it is raising some eyebrows. For almost two weeks, the FBI ran one of the internet’s largest child pornography websites and allowed users to download thousands of illicit images and videos.“The Justice Department acknowledged in court filings that the FBI operated the site, known as Playpen, from Feb. 20 to March 4, 2015. At the time, the site had more than 215,000 registered users and included links to more than 23,000 sexually explicit images and videos of children, including more than 9,000 files that users could download directly from the FBI. Some of the images described in court filings involved children barely old enough for kindergarten.”
For all of this dissemination of child porn to people around the country and the world, the FBI brought charges against just 25 people, nine of whom remain unidentified. They have been unable to link specific people to these nine network addresses.
The obvious question is, was it worth letting 215,000 people have access to a giant library of child porn for two weeks in order to catch 25 people? Is it not enough to shut down the site and apprehend the enabler(s), to stop it as soon as possible?
“At some point, the government investigation becomes indistinguishable from the crime, and we should ask whether that’s OK,” said Elizabeth Joh, a University of California Davis law professor who has studied undercover investigations. “What’s crazy about it is who’s making the cost/benefit analysis on this? Who decides that this is the best method of identifying these people?”