Australian police operated one of the dark web’s largest child abuse sites for almost a year in secret, posing as its founder in an undercover operation.
Childs Play, the dark web forum that acted as an underground meeting place for thousands of active pedophiles, was taken over by Brisbane police’s Taskforce Argos in October 2016 in an undercover operation,
The police involvement was uncovered by journalists with the Norwegian newspaper, VG, who spent months tracing Childs Play’s origins and monitoring public posts. Due to a security flaw, they unwittingly discovered a sensitive police operation in January 2017.
Taskforce Argos squad had taken over Childs Play, assuming the identity of its founder following his arrest for the rape of a four year old girl in the US. Undercover detectives were posting and sharing abuse material on the forum to maintain their cover. Other users posted and saw images while the site was under police control.
Childs Play was one of the largest sites on the dark web. The site was created in April 2016, and had attracted more than a million users. About 100 “producers” were active on the site, filming and sharing abuse and rape of children. The police shut the forum down in September 2017.
The operation has now led to investigations by a dozen foreign countries into the site’s users. Head of Argos unit Jon Rouse said it had led to significant rescues of children globally and the arrest of serious criminal child sex offenders.
He said, “We don’t create these sites. We do not want them to exist. When we do find them, we infiltrate and get as high as possible in the networks administrative structure to destroy it.”
The leader of the site, Canadian Benjamin Faulkner, is serving life behind bars for the sexual assault of the four-year-old in Virginia last year, which he committed alongside American Patrick Falte.
Taskforce Argos, in conjunction with European police and US Homeland Security, had been tracking the two men before the rape in Virginia. They got notified that Faulkner had crossed the border, and knew he was likely to meet Falte.
The police arrested both of them at a home in Virginia. Following the arrest, they moved the website to an Australian server, and the Argos unit assumed the identity of Faulkner. They began posting on the site, having apologised for the unexplained absence.
The forum’s community would know the site was compromised, if a monthly post from Faulkner did not come. Each of the posts was to end with an image of child abuse. Posting abuse material would be impossible for undercover police, but Australian police can be permitted to engage in activities normally considered illegal in order to combat specific crimes.
“During a so-called “controlled operation” we get permission from a judge to act in ways that normally would have been considered illegal. We are given the right to commit certain criminal actions and we are exempted from prosecution because we are investigating specific crimes,” explains Investigator Paul Griffiths, who was in charge of the operation.
Nevertheless it put the Argos unit in an uncomfortable position. To prevent harm to children, the police must share images of child exploitation.
“Things can be read between the lines, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re encouraging anything. We may have talked about sexual abuse in a number of different forums and platforms, but we would never encourage abuse,” said Griffith. “Sharing any such image is an abuse of that child. However, it is something we can justify as being for the greater good and to prevent ongoing abuse of children.”
When asked about how did he think the children in the pictures would feel about the police sharing them, he said “I hope they understand that we are trying to catch as many offenders as possible.”
A number of countries is already involved in the investigation of the site’s members. Griffiths had a list of between 60 and 90 people from around the world who are his main targets.
Canadian police say they have identified and saved “a dozen” children and referred some 100 cases to other countries.