Child Porn Site 'Playpen' Creator Steven Chase Sentenced To 30 Years In Prison

Child Porn Site ‘Playpen’ Creator Steven Chase Sentenced To 30 Years In Prison

Steven W. Chase, 58, of Naples, Florida, creator and administrator of the “dark web” child porn site Playpen has been sentenced to 30 years in prison, according to a report from Global News. Chase was sentenced in a North Carolina courtroom on multiple charges of child pornography and child exploitation. Two codefendants, Michael Fluckiger, 46, of Indiana, and David Browning, 47, of Kentucky, both co-administrators of Playpen, were found guilty of similar charges earlier this year and each received 20-year prison sentences.

The FBI describes the ongoing investigation into Playpen as the largest of its kind, “unprecedented in its scope and reach.” The site is believed to be the largest child porn site ever, and existed, largely untouchable, on the dark web until Chase slipped up.

“Given the nature of how Tor hidden services work, there was not much we could do about it,” recalled Special Agent Dan Alfin of the Bureau’s Violent Crimes Against Children section, Tor being the web browser most use to access hidden sites on the deep web.

Once a secret government project, the Tor browser is now available for public download.
Once a secret government project, the Tor browser is now available for public download. [Image by g0d4ather/Shutterstock]

But Chase made a mistake in December, 2014, and accidentally revealed Playpen’s public IP address; a gaffe which was caught by a foreign law enforcement agency, who quickly alerted the FBI after it was traced back to a location in the U.S.

“From that point we took normal investigative steps — seized a copy of the website, served search warrants for e-mail accounts, followed the money — and everything led back to Steven Chase.

“It’s the same with any criminal violation: As they get smarter, we adapt, we find them. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, except it’s not a game. Kids are being abused, and it’s our job to stop that.”

Shortly thereafter, the FBI traced the site to a web server in North Carolina, administrated by Chase.

But arresting the administrators was just the beginning.

In January, 2015, the FBI partnered with the Department of Justice Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section and law enforcement groups around the world in the somewhat-unfortunately named Operation Pacifier to go after Playpen’s thousands of members. Using what the FBI refers to as “a court-approved network investigative technique,” according to Ars Technica, that technique involved leaving the site running under FBI administration for several weeks after its seizure to monitor users. The technique is undeniably effective, but many question whether it is ethical. Chase himself called it “outrageous government conduct” in his argument that his indictment should be dismissed.

To date, Operation Pacifier has resulted in almost 900 arrests worldwide as of May 4, 2017, including 350 U.S.-based individuals. Of the 548 international arrests currently reported, 296 sexually-abused children, along with 55 American children, have been “successfully identified or rescued.”

In several of the resulting U.S.-based cases, the FBI has chosen to drop charges rather than reveal the source code of their malware.

Playpen was created in August, 2014, on the Tor network, which allows users to communicate anonymously in relative safety. Ironically, as noted by U.S. Attorney Jill Rose in a written response to a motion to have Chase’s case dismissed, the program was first created by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory as a means of protecting government communications. The USNRL did their job a little too well; “The Tor network is a haven for criminal activity in general, and the online sexual exploitation of children in particular.”

Since the high-profile takedown of the 'Silk Road' drug marketplace, people have become increasingly-aware of the deep web.
Since the high-profile takedown of the ‘Silk Road’ drug marketplace, people have become increasingly-aware of the deep web. [Image by Natalie Cass/Getty Images]

According to David Browning’s plea agreement, Playpen hosted 215,000 user accounts and over 50,000 images and videos of child pornography. The plea argument also details many instances of his and other users’ access of the site being monitored by the FBI after they gained access, up to March 4, 2015, when it was shut down.

Chase lived in a suburban neighborhood in Naples, Florida, and according to public records, ran an excavation trucking company. He had previously been charged with several minor crimes, including battery and possession of a controlled substance, but those charges were dismissed.

[Featured Image by Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office/Handout]

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