A major international police operation to bust child predators involved police sharing child pornography with over a million unsuspecting online subscribers for a year after investigators took control of the dark web's largest child abuse forum. Though hundreds of pedophiles were arrested after the site was shut down, the police sting involved undercover officers sharing extremely disturbing content and encouraging followers to engage in sexual acts with children. But police say it was worth it.
A new report reveals that Australian police were running the largest pedophile and child pornography forum on the internet for a year as part of a joint initiative between Australian, European, and Canadian police as well as the US Department of Homeland Security to track down the site's administrators and child porn producers. Over the weekend the Norwegian newspaper VG published its bombshell investigation which confirmed that between October 2016 and September 2017 a special police task force based in Queensland, Australia was able to quietly hack the site "Childs Play" which had reached over a million registered accounts and had thousands of active users.
Queensland police at Taskforce Argos, including investigator Paul Griffiths (pictured). Image source: Kinsa.net
The task force was able to identify the site's top tier administrators, leading to hundreds of international arrests and criminal investigations, but not before crossing what critics see as a significant ethical line: to expose those behind the site, police themselves posted child pornography and facilitated what was essentially a pedophile online meet-up.
The site has existed since April 2016 on the dark web, which made it next to impossible to identify users and administrators as the dark web operates based on layers of encryption which ensures complete anonymity. Not only did the forum include over one hundred active producers of child pornography who would daily post videos and images, but even more disturbingly involved a smaller inner circle who shared child torture videos.
Among this inner circle were Childs Play administrators 'Warhead' and 'Crazymonk' - later revealed to be 26-year old Canadian Benjamin Faulkner and 27-year old Tennessee native Patrick Falte, according the VG report. Both had previously worked as internet security professionals and were active technical support providers for pedophilia related internet sites - the two had initially met, for example, through a website called the the “Pedo Support Community." The Australian child abuse task force had begun tracking the two by assembling profiles of their previous digital footprints in relation to child abuse related chat on the open web.
Source: Norway's VG
Faulkner (Warhead) for example, had in 2012 posted the following to a chat forum under his previous online identity, CuriousVendetta:
A little about myself to establish credibility here: My name is CuriousVendetta, and I work as a JR forensics consultant and penetration tester for an IT security firm. On the side, I do what I can to cause general mischief on the internet with a few friends of mine...
At the pool is where I am free, and where I can generate my fantasies. I have more girls in my 'fan club' than I can even count.
Faulkner was working as a youth swimming instructor in the small Canadian city of North Bay in Ontario and though it appears some parents had become suspicious of his proclivities, no police reports were ever filed. Patrick Falte had lived all his life with his parents a half an hour outside of Nashville and was the more advanced technical expert of the two. Both Warhead and Crazymonk as administrators of the Childs Play dark web forum had promised subscribers increased security measures. For example users knew that should Warhead, the site's leader, ever miss one of his routine postings to the community which involved a message stamped with a pornographic image, it would be a signal that the community had been infiltrated by police.
But police did infiltrate the community and took it over, partly due to mistakes made by the administrators. The forum transacted in Bitcoin - common for the dark web - but Crazymonk had his bitcoin wallet linked to his personal email address, making it easy for the US Department of Homeland Security to locate him. Other mistakes which helped police included both site leaders posting identifying information in various on the open web which helped investigators build profiles for the two. From there police not only began monitoring the pair - even installing tracking devices on their vehicles - but were also able to observe all communications and postings on the site through a backdoor. It was soon understood that the two would occasionally drive for over 10 hours to meet multiple times a year. After months of monitoring, the two met in person at a usual spot in Manassas, Virginia, where one of Childs Play's users had regularly offered the men his 4-year old daughter to rape while being video taped.
It was in Manassas that US federal agents finally made the arrest, but only after the 4-year old had already been raped in a Virginia home. Authorities told VG that they had no way of knowing of the rape beforehand, citing online messaging as not indicative of that information. The video tape would later be used to convict Faulkner and Falte, who were given life sentences for both the rape and running the site. After the arrests, the Australian task force, known as Argos, then moved in to assume the identities of the arrested site administrators. Investigators studied the pair's online language styles and characteristics, eventually posting an admin message so that users wouldn't get suspicious, which of course required the child pornography image stamp.
The site's server was located in Australia, which was important to the international investigation as Australian law gives police broad leeway to commit crimes in pursuit of investigations, especially in relation to catching child pornographers. Task force Argo's officers not only uploaded the image, thereby convincing subscribers that nothing was wrong, but according to VG issued the following message to the community:
"I hope that some of you were able to give a special present to the little ones in your lives, and spend some time with them. It's a great time of year to snuggle up near a fire, and make some memories."
Police, while running the site, also continued to share images and videos while undergoing their year-long investigation which identified numerous video producers as well as consumers of the content. For example the task force posted a video of an eight-year-old girl being raped only two weeks after taking over the forum, which was viewed 770,617 times, according to the report. Such extreme police tactics, which authorities argue was necessary to rescue victims and put predators behind bars, have outraged some of the victims' families.
VG reporters were able to speak to a mother of one the victims whose video was used by police as part of the operation: "My daughter should not be used as a bait... It is not right for the police to promote these images," she said. But police investigators told VG in response to criticism that, "There is definitely a balance between what we want to achieve and how we go about it." And added, "Eventually we get to the point where it isn’t worth running the forum any more. But as long as we’re identifying victims, producers and abusers, we will keep running it."
A similar investigation by the FBI in 2015 of a site significantly smaller than Child's Play's size made 870 arrests and rescued 259 children after agents kept it online for just two weeks. The FBI came under fire for actively sharing, promoting and facilitating the transfer of thousands of images and videos. But the Australian task force ran a site which was over five times the size and content volume for close to a year.