On Friday, a federal jury convicted a Florida man of creating one of the dark web's largest child pornography sites, called 'Playpen'. Last year, the FBI briefly took control of the site, and deployed malware on a mass scale in an attempt to identify Playpen's visitors.
Steven W. Chase, 57, was found guilty of one count of engaging in a child exploitation enterprise, one count of advertising child pornography, three counts of transportation of child pornography, and one count of possession of child pornography, according to a press release from the Department of Justice.
Chase was identified as a suspect when an unnamed foreign law enforcement agency tipped off the FBI. Playpen, which ran on the anonymity network Tor, had been misconfigured, exposing its real IP address to the normal internet. The FBI found that the IP was from a data centre in North Carolina, and that Chase had paid for upkeep of Playpen with his own PayPal account.
The Playpen case has gained national press coverage, largely because instead of shutting down the site after arresting Chase, the FBI briefly ran Playpen from a government server. This was so the agency could deploy a network investigative technique (NIT), or a piece of malware, to unmask the site's users.
Chase's attorney Peter Adolf unsuccessfully tried to have his client's case thrown out, claiming that the FBI had engaged in "outrageous conduct" by keeping Playpen up-and-running, and distributing child pornography in the process. This motion was denied, since Chase was arrested before the FBI took control of Playpen.
Adolf also claimed that the FBI had deliberately made the site run faster, which had led to a boom in its popularity. (The FBI, for its part, denied this).
Two of Chase's co-defendants, Michael Fluckiger, 46, who acted as the site's co-administrator, and David Lynn Browning, 47, who moderated the website, pleaded guilty in December 2015.
This may be the end of the case for Chase, but suspected Playpen users across the country are battling for evidence to be suppressed, or for cases to be dismissed, largely based on the single, arguably illegal warrant the FBI used to hack the site visitors.