Agent Killed in Raid Ran Investigation Where FBI Hacked, Then Operated a Child Porn Site

In 2015, Special Agent Daniel Alfin ran the highly controversial but successful “Playpen” operation, in which the FBI turned a darkweb child exploitation site into a honeypot.
February 3, 2021, 7:01pm
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Police officers block the street where two FBI agents were killed and three others were injured in a shooting this Tuesday morning as authorities were executing a warrant in Sunrise, Florida, United States on February 02, 2021. Image: Eva Marie Uzcategui Trinkl/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

FBI Special Agent Daniel Alfin was killed Tuesday during a shootout while executing a search warrant near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, along with Special Agent Laura Schwartzenberger, becoming the first FBI agents killed while on duty since 2008. It was one of the deadliest shootings involving the FBI ever. 

“Special Agent Alfin and Special Agent Schwartzenberger exemplified heroism today in defense of their country,” FBI director Christopher Wray said in a statement. “The FBI will always honor their ultimate sacrifice and will be forever grateful for their bravery.” (Three others were injured; two are in stable condition, and one didn’t require hospitalization.)

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Alfin was best known for leading one of the largest and most controversial child-porn stings in U.S. history: the “Playpen” investigation, which was also one of the largest hacking campaigns ever carried out by a law enforcement agency.

Playpen was a darkweb hidden service that launched in August 2014 and was accessible only through the Tor network, which encrypts traffic and generally is able to keep its users anonymous. 

The site eventually grew to have well over 200,000 members and over 117,000 posts, including images of extreme child pornography as well as discussions about how to avoid being caught, as Motherboard reported in 2016. At the time, the FBI called Playpen “the largest remaining known child pornography hidden service in the world."

Playpen’s server was seized in western North Carolina in February 2015, after the hidden service’s creator, Steven Chase, mistakenly briefly made Playpen’s IP address available on the regular internet. But after the FBI seized the server, the agency kept it running from February 20 to March 4, 2015, and used a hacking tool to identify approximately 1,300 IP addresses. 

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This was, for obvious reasons, controversial—the FBI effectively operated a child pornography site for nearly two weeks and allowed users to access its materials under the agency’s watch and on its own servers. 

In sworn testimony, Alfin described himself as the "primary case agent" on the Playpen investigation. 

In addition to hacking users in the U.S., the FBI hacked computers in other countries, including Australia, Denmark, Greece, Chile, and more. A lawyer for Jay Michaud, a Washington teacher arrested in connection with the sting, called it an "extraordinary expansion of government surveillance and its use of illegal search methods on a massive scale” in a 2015 court filing. 

But the decision was approved by senior officials at the Department of Justice and the FBI, a court transcript in 2017 showed. In 2016, when Michaud’s lawyers called for charges to be thrown out based on the FBI’s “outrageous conduct,” a federal district judge in Washington ruled it wasn’t. 

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“I am not shocked by this,” Senior District Judge Robert J. Bryan told the court

By May 2017, the FBI said that at least 900 people had been arrested in the U.S. and around the world, dozens of child sex abusers and pornography producers had been prosecuted, and more than 300 abused children around the world were identified or rescued. 

“It’s the same with any criminal violation: As they get smarter, we adapt, we find them,” Alfin said in an article published on the FBI’s website in 2017, after Chase was sentenced to 30 years in prison. 

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game, except it’s not a game,” he said. “Kids are being abused, and it’s our job to stop that.”

Details of the Tuesday raid during which Alfin and Schwartzenberger were killed are scarce. The man who was being investigated was found dead in his apartment, but the causes of his death were unknown, and his name and the specific allegations against him haven’t been released yet. But the incident was the FBI’s deadliest shootout since a 1986 shooting in Miami in which two agents were killed and five were injured. 

“They put their lives on the line, and that’s a hell of a price to pay,” President Joe Biden said Tuesday. “My heart aches for the families.”