On Tuesday, Steven W. Chase, 58, of Naples, Florida, the creator and lead administrator of Playpen, a sophisticated website dedicated to the sexual abuse of children which operated on the Tor anonymity network, was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Chase had been found guilty last September 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.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Blanco stated:
Child predators use online forums on anonymous networks to abuse and exploit children, preying on the inexperienced and vulnerable in society. This pervasive and global problem demands an aggressive, technology-driven response. 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.
U.S. Attorney Westmoreland Rose added, “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 sentence 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.”
Chase created the Playpen website as a Tor hidden service, which only permitted individuals operating on the Tor anonymity network to access the site. As the lead administrator of Playpen, Chase and more than 150,000 other members authored and viewed tens of thousands of postings involving the sexual abuse of children. Images and videos shared through the website were highly categorized towards victim age and gender, as well as the type of sexual activity, according to trial evidence. Website members employed advanced technological means to thwart law enforcement’s efforts, including elaborate file encryption.
When Chase was arrested on February 19, 2015, forensic examination of a computer and other devices revealed Chase was in possession of thousands of images depicting the sexual abuse of children as young as infants and toddlers.
The Department of Justice reported:
Following Chase’s arrest, the FBI obtained approval from a federal court to deploy a Network Investigative Technique (NIT) to pierce through the anonymity provided by the Tor network and obtain IP address and other basic, computer-related information to help locate and identify the users of the website Chase created. The FBI subsequently issued investigative leads to offices in every U.S. State. As a result of the ongoing investigation, at least 350 U.S.-based individuals have been arrested, 25 producers of child pornography have been prosecuted, 51 alleged hands-on abusers have been prosecuted and 55 American children who were subjected to sexual abuse have been successfully identified or rescued.
International lead information was coordinated through EUROPOL’s European Cybercrime Center (EC3), who received and disseminated information through its network of member states, and the FBI Legal Attaché network. The ongoing international investigation has yielded at least 520 arrests and the successful identification and rescue of at least 186 children who were subjected to sexual abuse.