Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang (VG) revealed October 7 that a specialized Australian police unit, Task Force Argos, ran a popular child pornography dark web website for almost a year, in a bid to trap users.
An IT expert at the magazine discovered in January 2017 that child abuse site "Childs Play" was hosted by police in the state of Queensland, after exploiting a vulnerability in the site's code to reveal its IP address.
VG reporters flew to Brisbane to confront police on why they were hosting a major international child abuse image-and-video-sharing sites, and officials duly revealed details of the operation — on condition they would not publish until police were ready.
It transpired Australian law enforcement had been running the site since October 2016, after the site's Canadian administrator, known as WarHead, was arrested in the US state of Virginia.
Police told VG they had been tracking WarHead after discovering his true identity when he posted on a technical forum asking for help on code he was using on a separate child abuse site, Giftbox. WarHead reportedly met up with Crazymonk, co-administrator on the Giftbox site and also under police surveillance, at a house in Virginia to rape a four-year-old girl on the invitation of a fellow forum user. The pair were swooped upon by local police, and the "keys" to Childs Play handed to their Australian counterparts.
The sting operation was ultimately successful, producing arrests and evidence on sex offenders in several countries. However, some have expressed serious ethical reservations about the operation.
For instance, over the course of their investigation, VG journalists made contact with a mother in New York — images of abuse perpetrated against her daughter were shared on Childs Play while it was covertly under the administration of Task Force Argos. She was outraged to learn of the police operation, stating her daughter should not have been used as "bait."
"If they are using her images, then she should be paid or compensated for their use. It is not right for the police to promote these images," she said.
While understanding of such concerns, Peter Saunders, founder of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC), believe when it comes to protecting children, the ends "absolutely" justify the means.
"Ultimately, we don't want more victim survivors. We already have more than we can cope with, and we want these activities stopped, with perpetrators put behind bars. As long as law enforcement agencies have some kind of legal warrant for their activities, I don't see a problem with such actions. When authorities go undercover and infiltrate criminal networks, their agents may need to do things that would be illegal for ordinary citizens to do. If they weren't able to do that, there's all sorts of crime they couldn't effectively fight," Mr. Saunders told Sputnik.
For their part, officials involved deny responsibility for what was shared on Childs Play while they ran it.
"We don't create these sites. We do not want them to exist. When we do find them, we infiltrate and get as high as possible in the networks administrative structure to destroy it. But we will never create a forum for child sex offenders," said Jon Rouse, head of the Argos unit.
Police told VG journalists their control of the site and its database of over one million users yielded information that led to children being rescued, and abusers imprisoned for life. Its task force is now in the process of sending cases to police around the world.