Privacy groups claim FBI hacking operation in the PlayPen case was unconstitutional

Pierluigi Paganini February 11, 2017

According to Privacy groups, the FBI search warrant used to hack into thousands of computers around the world in the PlayPen case was unconstitutional,

Privacy groups are claiming the FBI hacking campaign against the Playpen child pornography community violated international law.

According to the court documents, the FBI monitored the Playpen bulletin board Tor hidden service launched in August 2014, named Playpen, mainly used for “the advertisement and distribution of child pornography.”

The Playpen hidden service reached in one year over 200,000 users, with over 117,000 total posts mainly containing child pornography content. The law enforcement discovered nearly 1300 IP addresses belonging to the visitors.

PlayPen FBI hacked Tor Users child pornography NIT

According to Motherboard, the server running Playpen was seized by the FBI from a web host in North Carolina, then the law enforcement managed the computer to track its visitors. The agents used the network investigative technique (NIT) to obtain the IP addresses of the Playpen users.

The Feds hacked 8,700 computers in 120 countries, based on a single warrant, a procedure considered unconstitutional by privacy advocates. The US Law enforcement has expanded its extraterritorial surveillance capabilities without the consent of the states that were hosting the computers targeted by their malware.

The FBI’s hacking operation in this case represents an enormous expansion of its extraterritorial surveillance capabilities — affecting thousands of computers in over a hundred countries around the world.” wrote Scarlet Kim, a legal officer with U.K.-based Privacy International. “How will other countries react to the FBI hacking in their jurisdictions without prior consent?” 

What if a foreign intelligence agency of law enforcement body had carried out a similar hacking operation that compromised the computers of US citizens?

Last week, the U.K.-based Privacy International group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, filed briefs in a lawsuit involving the FBI’s Playpen investigation.

The privacy groups filed briefs in a case involving Alex Levin, who is one of the suspects in the FBI’s Playpen investigation that was identified by the Feds thanks to the NIT (Network investigative technique).

The privacy advocates claim that the single warrant used by the FBI to conduct the hacking operations is not valid.

According to the EFF and ACLU groups, the warrant was invalid because the U.S. Constitution prohibits such kind of search on US citizens.

““No one questions the need for the FBI to investigate serious crimes like child pornography. But even serious crimes can’t justify throwing out our basic constitutional principles. Here, on the basis of a single warrant, the FBI searched 8,000 computers located all over the world,” EFF attorney Mark Rumold wrote in a blog post. “If the FBI tried to get a single warrant to search 8,000 houses, such a request would unquestionably be denied.”

The EFF consider unconstitutional the use of a single warrant to hack in so huge number of computers across the word.

On the other side, U.S. attorneys believe the Feds followed proper procedures in obtaining the warrant, there was no other way to unclock the criminals involved in the PlayPen case.

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Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs – NIT, PlayPen)

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