Privacy Law

US uses hacker technique to catch child-porn offenders; was search warrant too extensive?

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The federal government is using hacker techniques to identify child pornography offenders, raising concerns among privacy advocates.

The Washington Post explains how the government used the techniques in its investigation of people using the Playpen child-pornography website. Armed with a warrant, the government seized Playpen and installed malware on computers logged into the website. The malware allowed investigators to obtain Internet protocol addresses on computers whose users, in order to use Playpen, had installed Tor software for anonymity.

The probe revealed Internet protocol addresses of 1,300 computers and led to charges against 137 people.

One of those charged with possession of child pornography was Jay Michaud, 62, a school administrator in Vancouver, Washington. He is arguing that the government violated the Fourth Amendment by obtaining a warrant akin to a “general warrant” used by Britain in the Colonial era to conduct searches without individualized suspicion.

The government says it had probable cause because the Playpen website was devoted to child pornography, it could not be found in a Google search, and its users couldn’t access it unless they use the special Tor software.

Among those expressing concern is University of California at Hastings law professor Ahmed Ghappour. “As the hacking techniques become more ambitious, failure in execution can lead to large-scale privacy and civil liberties abuses at home and abroad,” he told the Washington Post. “It’s imperative that Congress step in to regulate exactly who and how law enforcement may hack.”

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