The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has found itself in the midst of a controversial debate in regards to the agency’s recent decision to charge a man alleged for various pedophiliac activities, including the illicit acquisition of child pornography.
Initially, the FBI filed a lawsuit against Jay Michaud, a middle school teacher in Vancouver, Washington, for his involvement in darknet meetup site Playpen, operated by and for pedophiles across the nation. Investigators discovered Michaud’s unlawful activities on the site and was successful in gaining evidence to prove his involvement within the Playpen platform.
Strangely, the FBI announced to drop the case in December, filing a dismissal motion after the majority of its investigation was complete. In collaboration with local law enforcement, the FBI also raided the home of Michaud, wherein they found a collection of child pornography and solid proof to support the prosecutor’s claim at the trial.
It was later revealed that the FBI essentially dropped the case solely to prevent the leak of the technology they used to crackdown on Michaud and other pedophilia activists in the dark web.
In late November, despite the efforts of the senate to stop the approval of the proposal, a change in
Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure was passed, effectively allowing the FBI and law enforcement to target Tor and VPN users.
This major legal change enabled the FBi and other law enforcement agencies to easily obtain warrants to shut down VPN or Tor users. The FBI amongst many other agencies frequently sought out for warrants in order to unravel illicit activists and potential criminals in the dark web.
However, in the Michaud-Playpen child pornography case, the FBI succeeded to obtain only a single warrant to disclose around 1,300 public IP addresses and MAC addresses of users on Playpen. Thus, the judge of the case accepted the request made by the layer of Michaud and formally asked the FBI to provide a sample of the network investigate technique (NIT) used in the process of taking over the dark web meetup platform Playpen and garner over a thousand IP addresses of users.
At this phase of the trial, the FBI had to either disclose a sample of their NIT used to crackdown many users on Playpen or effectively dismiss the case in order to protect themselves and the technology used in the case. Ultimately, the FBI dropped the case,
Organizations like the EFF harshly criticized the FBI for its misconduct and severely breaching privacy rights of users. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) stated:
“As it stands now, the government has arrested and charged hundreds of suspects as a result of the investigation. Now defendants are pushing back, challenging the tenuous legal basis for the FBI’s warrant and its refusal to disclose exactly how its malware operated. Some courts have upheld the FBI’s actions in dangerous decisions that, if ultimately upheld, threaten to undermine individuals’ constitutional privacy protections in personal computers.”
The EFF also stated that the general public must expect more cases such as the Michaud-Playpen child pornography in the future, which will discourage the FBI to abuse the change in Rule 41 and misuse malware to surveil on users.