The creator and lead administrator of Playpen, a highly sophisticated website dedicated to the sexual abuse of children which operated on the Tor anonymity network, was sentenced today for his role in this global child exploitation enterprise.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division; U.S. Attorney Jill Westmoreland Rose of the Western District of North Carolina; Assistant Director Stephen Richardson of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division; Special Agent in Charge John A. Strong of the FBI’s Charlotte, North Carolina, Division; Special Agent in Charge Harold H. Shaw of the FBI’s Boston Division; and Former Special Agent in Charge Paul Wysopal of the FBI’s Tampa, Florida, Division made the announcement.
Steven W. Chase, 58, of Naples, Florida, was sentenced to 30 years in prison, along with a lifetime term of supervised release, and was ordered to forfeit his residence in Naples by U.S. District Judge Richard L. Voorhees of the Western District of North Carolina. On Sept. 16, 2016, a federal jury found Chase 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. The jury also returned a special verdict determining that Chase should be ordered to forfeit all property derived from, involved in, or traceable to his criminal activities, to include his Naples residence.
“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,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Blanco. “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.”
“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,” said U.S. Attorney Westmoreland Rose. “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.”
“The abuse of an innocent child is among the most unconscionable offenses,” said Assistant Director Richardson. “When multiple people conspire to develop and promote a malicious website to sexually assault and exploit children, the FBI furthers its resolve to find these perpetrators. As I have said before and as today’s sentencing proves, the FBI will stop at nothing to deliver justice for these innocent victims. We owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women of the FBI and our international partners for their dedication and hard work on this case.”
Evidence at trial established that beginning in August 2014, Chase created the Playpen website as a Tor hidden service, which only permitted individuals operating on the Tor anonymity network to access the site. Evidence at trial further established that Chase served as lead administrator of Playpen, through which he 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. Testimony at trial also established that in addition to use of the Tor anonymity network, website members employed other advanced technological means in order to thwart law enforcement’s efforts, including elaborate file encryption.
As lead administrator of the website, trial evidence demonstrated that Chase: chose the name of the website; selected and made payments to the website hosting company; regularly updated the website with new features and security fixes; promoted several members of the website to Administrator and Moderator status to assist with the administration of the criminal enterprise; and spent hundreds of hours logged in to the website – personally authoring hundreds of postings.
Chase was arrested following a court-authorized search of his home on Feb. 19, 2015. Forensic examination of a computer and devices seized pursuant to the search revealed that he was in possession of thousands of images depicting the sexual abuse of children as young as infants and toddlers.
Chase’s co-defendants Michael Fluckiger, 46, of Portland, Indiana, and David Lynn Browning, 47, of Wooton, Kentucky, the co-administrator and global moderator of the website, respectively, pleaded guilty in December 2015 to engaging in a child exploitation enterprise for their roles in helping Chase run the website. On Jan. 12, 2017, Fluckiger was sentenced to 240 months in prison for engaging in a child exploitation enterprise, along with lifetime supervised release. On Feb. 7, 2017, Browning was sentenced to 240 months in prison for engaging in a child exploitation enterprise, along with a lifetime term of supervised release.
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.
The FBI’s Violent Crimes Against Children Section, Major Case Coordination Unit and Digital Analysis and Research Center investigated the case with assistance from the FBI’s Charlotte, Tampa and Boston Field Offices. Trial Attorney Reginald E. Jones of the Criminal Division’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS) and Assistant U.S. Attorney Cortney Randall of the Western District of North Carolina prosecuted the case.