The United States Department of Justice is in the process of prosecuting over 130 people throughout the nation for accessing Playpen, an illicit website once accessible via Tor. Surprisingly, the DoJ dropped all charges against the defendant this week.
Federal authorities seized the servers the child pornography site was hosted upon and operated it for approximately two weeks in 2015. The US investigators then deployed malware that deanonymized and revealed the IP addresses of over a hundred criminals. As part of the criminal discovery process, defense attorneys requested the NIT source. However, the case, United States v. Jay Michaud was forcefully dismissed because the prosecutors refused to disclose the “Network Investigative Technique” (“NIT”) used to compromise Tor. The DoJ stated, “Disclosure is not currently an option.”
Since the order by the US District Judge Robert Bryan last year, the federal agencies behind the NIT have classified the code to prevent more cases from being dropped. Christopher Soghoian, expert witness and former privacy expert from the ACLU, spoke about the Michaud case stating, “My concern with the economics of hacking is that if the government hacks enough people, hacking not only becomes an attractive way of surveilling but it becomes the cheapest way to spy on people.” Over a hundred Playpen-related cases are still pending, and it is currently unknown if more may be dropped in the future.