DOJ's Latest Child Porn Site Takedown Shows Encryption Isn't Really Stopping The Feds From Fighting Child Porn

from the welcome-to-basic-detective-work dept

The DOJ just delivered a counterargument to its own anti-encryption rhetoric. Attorney General William Barr, Deputy AG Jeffrey Rosen, and FBI Director Chris Wray recently spent some time decrying the increasing use of encryption to secure personal communications.

The latest attack on encryption was prompted by Facebook's announcement that it would be adding end-to-end encryption to its Messenger service. Three governments (US, UK, Australia) joined forces to tell Facebook it was wrong. They promised Facebook's inability to snoop on its users' messages would allow thousands of child porn producers and consumers to escape justice.

And yet the DOJ, FBI, and others are still managing to track down and arrest criminal suspects -- all without having access to encryption backdoors or compromised communication services. As Jason Koebler reports, another child porn investigation has led to the takedown of a dark web site.

The Department of Justice announced on Wednesday that it has seized and shut down Welcome to Video, one of the world’s largest dark web child porn websites in a worldwide law enforcement action.

Law enforcement has arrested 337 alleged pedophiles in 38 countries around the world and has rescued 23 children from abusive situations as part of the operation, the DOJ said in a press conference on Wednesday.

No backdoors were needed to track down the owner of the server or hundreds of the site's visitors. For that matter, the FBI didn't even need a warrant. The FBI did not deploy its infamous NIT (Network Investigative Technique) to track down site users. The flaw was the payment system linked to the site. Users may have thought their Bitcoin transactions couldn't be traced back to them, but they were wrong.

According to an indictment, law enforcement was able to track users of the site on the blockchain not because of the design of Bitcoin itself, which is pseudonymous, but because “virtual currency exchanges were required by US law to collect identifying information of their customers and verify their clients’ identities.”

Many financial records are third-party records. No warrants needed. Investigators sent Bitcoin to the child porn site's wallet multiple times, managing to suss out the wallet's owner. Somewhat conveniently, the owner's phone number and email account were listed with the exchange. Investigators then began digging up info on other users who were sending Bitcoin to the same wallet, using the mandated data collection to unmask site visitors. Coinbase was handed a subpoena and Coinbase handed over users' info.

The DOJ's overwrought anti-encryption arguments aside, there's another concerning aspect of this investigation -- one the DOJ is far less willing to discuss. As Koebler points out, the DOJ apparently let the site operate for months, if not years, to track down as many site visitors as possible.

The indictment [PDF] indicates investigators were aware of the site's existence since 2015. At some point between then and the operator's arrest in March of 2018, investigators purchased site credits and downloaded child porn. The indictment does not say when the DOJ took control of the site and/or shut it down. It doesn't appear the FBI or any other law enforcement agency continued to run the site after its seizure (as the FBI has done in other cases), but it is disturbing multiple law enforcement agencies felt it was better to leave the site up and running -- and victimize more children in the process -- than shut it down as soon as possible with the understanding some site visitors might escape prosecution.

The facts of this case undermine the DOJ's assertions about the necessity of encryption backdoors to successfully investigate and prosecute child porn producers and distributors. This case even undercuts its arguments about cellphone encryption, as the FBI's testimony [PDF via Cyrus Farivar] shows it didn't have to make any effort at all to access the contents of an arrestee's phone.

Q. Did he have a cellphone on him at the time you encountered him?

A. Yes.

Q. Did you seize that?

A. Yes.

Q. Did he voluntarily provide the password --

A. Yes.

Q. -- passcode to it?

A. Yes.

Encryption isn't the roadblock the DOJ's rhetoric makes it appear to be. It may make some investigations more difficult, but it certainly doesn't make them impossible. The DOJ can still protect children without making communications less secure for millions of people. It's not zero sum. It's a tradeoff -- something the DOJ is familiar with. It trades the continued exploitation of children for a few more prosecutions when it takes on child porn sites. If it's willing to allow children to be hurt to save children, you'd think it would be a bit more cautious when suggesting the public should give up its security in exchange for the DOJ's idea of "public safety."

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: child porn, doj, encryption, fbi, investigations
Companies: welcome to video


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Oct 2019 @ 8:25pm

    Re:

    Criminals hide from authority within positions of authority. Clearly we need to abolish positions of authority.


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.