US DOJ drops child porn case to avoid disclosing Tor exploit

The FBI remains unwilling to disclose the technique it used to deanonymize Tor users in the Playpen case

The U.S. Department of Justice is asking a federal court to dismiss its indictment in a case that involves a child porn site known as Playpen after a judge asked the government to disclose the hacking technique it used to gather evidence.

"The government must now choose between disclosure of classified information and dismissal of its indictment," the DOJ said in a court filing Friday. "Disclosure is not currently an option."

The case involves Jay Michaud, a school administrator from Vancouver, Washington, who was arrested in July 2015 for allegedly viewing child porn images on Playpen. Michaud's case was one of at least 137 cases brought throughout the U.S. in relation to Playpen, a website that operated on the Tor anonymity network and which the FBI managed to seize in 2015.

Instead of shutting the website down immediately, the FBI let it operate for an additional 13 days during which time it deployed malware on its visitors' computers in order to obtain their real IP addresses and later identify them.

The Tor hidden service protocol, which Playpen used, is designed to hide the website's real IP address from users and the IP addresses of users from the website itself. It provides two-way anonymity.

Playpen visitors used the Tor Browser, a hardened and Tor-optimized version of Mozilla Firefox. It's not clear how the FBI managed to deploy malware on computers that visited Playpen, but security researchers believe that it was done through a yet unpatched vulnerability in Mozilla Firefox.

The FBI refers to the exploit as a Network Investigative Technique (NIT) and has refused to disclose details about it claiming that it's classified.

Michaud's lawyer previously asked the judge to force the DOJ to release the exploit as part of the discovery process between legal teams and Mozilla even filed a brief in the case asking for the government to share details of the vulnerability with the browser maker so it can be patched.

The judge agreed that there was a law enforcement need to keep details of the tool secret, but in May ruled that the government can't both keep the tool secret and use the information gathered with it as evidence at trial. It had to be one or the other.

"The suppression order entered by the Court in May 2016 has deprived the government of the evidence needed to establish Defendant Jay Michaud’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at Trial," the DOJ said in its latest motion to dismiss the indictment. "Because the government remains unwilling to disclose certain discovery related to the FBI’s deployment of a 'Network Investigative Technique' ('NIT') as part of its investigation into the Playpen child pornography site, the government has no choice but to seek dismissal of the indictment."

The DOJ is seeking a so-called dismissal without prejudice, which, if granted, would leave open the possibility that the government could bring new charges against the defendant in the future if the situation changes and it will be in a position to disclose the requested information about the exploit.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Lucian Constantin

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

David Coyle

Brother PocketJet PJ-773 A4 Portable Thermal Printer

I rate the printer as a 5 out of 5 stars as it has been able to fit seamlessly into my busy and mobile lifestyle.

Kurt Hegetschweiler

Brother PocketJet PJ-773 A4 Portable Thermal Printer

It’s perfect for mobile workers. Just take it out — it’s small enough to sit anywhere — turn it on, load a sheet of paper, and start printing.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?