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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.

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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?

This is actually the third time the FBI has seized a website and continued to run it for a short period of time. The first known operation took place in 2012, when the agency seized three sites and relocated two servers to an FBI facility in Omaha.

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In this latest operation, more than 100,000 registered users visited Playpen while the FBI ran it for 13 days, browsing a collection of 23,000 images and videos of children, some of them directly downloaded from the government’s computers. Some images included prepubescent females having sexual intercourse with adults.

“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?”

The FBI argues that when it seizes a child porn site, it has a “window of opportunity” to catch users who would remain hidden. They target sites like Playpen in the dark web that are only accessible to the public through Tor, which operates via file sharing between user’s computers. Once the FBI seizes a website and moves the servers to a government facility, they infect the site with malware that punctures security and reveals the users’ internet addresses.

“That approach is a significant departure from the government’s past tactics for battling online child porn, in which agents were instructed that they should not allow images of children being sexually assaulted to become public. The Justice Department has said that children depicted in such images are harmed each time they are viewed, and once those images leave the government’s control, agents have no way to prevent them from being copied and re-copied to other parts of the internet.”

Besides allowing the content to remain on the website to be downloaded and spread, “it did not block the site’s users from uploading new [content] while it was under the government’s control. And the FBI has not said it had any ability to prevent users from circulating the material they downloaded onto other sites.”

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The government always considers seizing an illegal child pornography site and removing it from existence immediately and permanently,” said Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr. “While doing so would end the trafficking of child pornography taking place on that one website, it would do nothing to prevent those same users from disseminating child pornography through other means. The decision whether to simply shut down a website or to allow it to continue operating for a brief period for a law enforcement purpose is a difficult one.

Whether or not it truly was a difficult decision, once the FBI gained the technical milestone to hack Tor’s anonymity, they did not hesitate in putting it to use by seizing and running child porn websites. Some would call it a sick variant of a sting operation. The jury of public opinion will assuredly deliver its verdict.

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Justin Gardner is a peaceful free-thinker with a background in the biological sciences. He is interested in bringing rationality back into the national discourse, and independent journalism as a challenge to the status quo.