The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has confirmed that they took over the operations of the biggest child pornographic website during a sting operation.

The U.S. Justice Department agreed in court filings that the FBI operated a website called Playpen for two weeks in early 2015. During the sting operation, the FBI found that the website had over 215,000 registered users. The website also had links to over 23,000 sexually explicit videos and images of children that includes around 9,000 files, which could be directly downloaded from the federal agency.

The details of the operation stay largely secret but this was the third operation when FBI took control of child porn websites and left it operational to catch people who accessed the content. FBI used a software in the latest operation that could identify users who would use security tools to hide their identity.

In the past, the government did not allow FBI agents to use child pornographic images online to catch those who viewed them. The Justice Department says that children in the images are harmed each time someone views their explicit image. Moreover, the FBI has no control to stop these images from being copied or re-copied and circulated on the Internet.

FBI agents acknowledge the associated risks; however, they say that there are no other way to identify those who accessed these websites.

"We had a window of opportunity to get into one of the darkest places on Earth, and not a lot of other options except to not do it," says Ron Hosko, a former senior FBI official who was involved in planning one of the agency's first efforts to take over a child porn site.

"There was no other way we could identify as many players."

The FBI revealed that they noticed Playpen soon after it became operational in August 2014. The website was hidden in the "dark web," which is a part of the Internet accessible to the public only via Tor - network software that bounces users' Internet traffic from one system to another so that it is not easily traceable.

FBI suggests that by March 2015, Playpen had become the largest known child pornographic service available in the world. The FBI has tracked that the website's servers were tracked to North Carolina and the agency secretly moved the computer servers at its own facility in Newington to start the sting operation.

FBI agents say that shutting the website immediately after it was found would have not enabled law enforcement officers to identify offenders and rescue victims from abuse. 

Photo: Lisa Williams | Flickr

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