Steven W. Chase, a 57-year-old man from Florida, was found guilty of running the infamous dark web child porn website, PlayPen.
A press release by the Department of Justice (DOJ) said the former admin 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. The jury also requested Chase to “forfeit all property derived from, involved in, or traceable to his criminal activities, to including his Naples residence.”
Law enforcement authorities identified Chase as a subject when an unnamed agency tipped off the FBI. At the time, PlayPen was misconfigured and exposed its real IP address to the clearnet (the normal internet). The Bureau tracked the IP address, which led to a data center in North Carolina. From there, they had an easy job since Chase made a rookie mistake: he paid for the servers with his own PayPal account.
Both partners of Chase, Michael Fluckiger, a 46-year-old man from Portland and David Lynn Browning, aged 47 from Wooton, pleaded guilty in December 2015 to engaging in a child exploitation enterprise for their roles in helping the PlayPen admin run the website. Fluckiger was the co-administrator while Wooton was the global moderator of the child porn site.
When the FBI took down the PlayPen website in February 2015, they made a bold move. The Bureau not only took over the child porn site, but they ran it between February 20 and March 4. The federal agency planted malware (called NITs – network investigative technology) to the website visitors’ computers and identified their IP addresses. During Operation Pacifier, the Federal Bureau of Investigation captured about 1,300 IPs and used them to locate and charge the child pornography site users. This action is the largest cyber operation the FBI ever conducted.
Operation Pacifier did not only help the FBI catch hundreds of alleged PlayPen members, but it also raised some real problems. One of these was the allegation of Peter Adolf, the federal defender of Chase, who claimed the agency improved the child porn website’s functionalities while they were running it. The lawyer also added that PlayPen’s popularity increased by 30 percent and the weekly number of visitors had raised from 11,000 to 50,000. Adolf’s motion goes by:
“As a result, the number of visitors to Playpen while it was under Government control [jumped] from an average of 11,000 weekly visitors to approximately 50,000 per week. During those two weeks, the website’s membership grew by over 30%, the number of unique weekly visitors to the site more than quadrupled, and approximately 200 videos, 9,000 images, and 13,000 links to child pornography [sites] were posted to the site.”
Soon after Adolf’s allegation, the Department of Justice released a court filing where they state that “the government played no role in enhancing or improving the functionality of the website.” They denied the lawyer’s claims by saying the FBI did not enhance the performance of PlayPen while they operated it.
Chase may have lost his case, however, there are many suspected users of the child porn website who are fighting for evidence suppression or for their case to be dropped. They claim the Bureau used an illegal warrant when the agency hacked PlayPen visitors.