On May 1, Steven Chase, a 58-year-old creator and lead administrator of Playpen, was officially sentenced to 30 years in prison by US District Judge Richard Voorhees of the Western District of North Carolina. Chase was also required to forfeit his residence in Naples and accept a lifetime term of supervised release.
Playpen is a sophisticated dark web marketplace and platform developed to distribute child pornography on the Tor anonymity network. Various law enforcement agencies across the world have collaborated to crackdown Playpen and reveal the identities of its administrators, founders and moderators.
So far, five Playpen administrators including Chase have been arrested, charged and sentenced. Two months ago, DeepDotWeb reported that a 47-year-old moderator of Playpen by the name of David Lynn Browning was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The sentencing of Chase marks the fifth arrest and conviction of Playpen-related criminals and moderators.
Chase Arrested in 2015 Following Court-Authorized Arrest
Chase first entered the radar and extensive investigation of law enforcement upon his arrest in February 2015. After the approval of the local court, police initiated an authorized search of Chase’s home and conducted forensic examination of computers and devices utilized by Chase. Investigators discovered that Chase was in possession of thousands of images portraying sexual abuse of children.
Chase was immediately arrested following the disclosure of his ownership of child pornography and inappropriate footages of children sexual abuse. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) then obtained an approval from a federal court to use a Network Investigative Technique (NIT) to unravel the identities of users and moderators within the Playpen network.
FBI NIT Technique, Controversial
However, as DeepDotWeb reported in December of 2016, the FBI’s utilization of a NIT became highly controversial as the court required the FBI to reveal details in regard to the specific NIT that was used to pierce through the Playpen network and its servers. Even though the FBI secured 100,000 potential targets, the use of a NIT without a clear investigative scope was ultimately questioned by the federal court. The FBI dropped many of its cases related to Playpen and child pornography cases due to the ambiguity in their investigative process. The FBI struggled to legally prove the charges of Playpen users.
Involvement of International Law Enforcement Agencies
The initial investigation of the FBI led to the collaboration of international law enforcement agencies including the Europol and European Cybercrime Center (EC3) to rescue children who were subjected to sexual abuse. According to the US Department of Justice (DoJ), at least 350 US-based individuals have been arrested, 25 producers of child pornography have been prosecuted and at least 186 have been rescued so far.
Chase Finally Found Guilty in 2016
When Chase was finally proven guilty of one count of engaging in a child exploitation enterprise, one count of advertising child pornography, three counts of transportation of child pornography and one count of possession of child pornography, law enforcement agencies vowed to use Chase and the rest of the Playpen as a message to potential online predators.
“The sentencing of the creator of the Playpen forum – along with the identification, apprehension and prosecution of forum members around the country – sends a message that online predators will be caught and prosecuted. While identifying and apprehending these criminals can be challenging, it is not impossible, and together with our domestic and foreign partners we will use every legal authority and technical tool we have to root out these predators and protect children from harm,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco.
Other law enforcement agents including FBI Criminal Investigative Division Assistant Director Stephen Richardson and US Attorney Westmoreland Rose stated that the case should be served as a warning for those perceiving the dark web as a place to commit crimes and initiate in illicit activities.
“Chase was the mastermind and gatekeeper of Playpen, a hidden, members-only Internet platform and a safe-haven for those looking to view and trade child pornography without detection. The depiction of the horrendous sexual exploitation of innocent and vulnerable children is a crime my office takes very seriously. Today’s sentencing delivers a clear message that the dark web is not a safe place for those looking to possess, receive and share child pornography: this type of criminal activity will land you in jail for a long time,” said Rose.