‘One Of The Worst Forms Of Evil’: More Than 330 Arrested In Child Porn Site Bust
Wednesday, October 16, 2019
More than 330 people have been arrested around the world in a major takedown of a massive child pornography website, which U.S. officials say is among the first to be found using cryptocurrency to carry out video sales.
"These agents and prosecutors rescued some 23 children worldwide from abusive situations" in the U.S., Spain and the U.K., said Jessie Liu, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. She described this type of crime as "one of the worst forms of evil imaginable."
"Our message for those who produce, distribute, and receive child pornography is clear: You may try to hide behind technology, but we will find you and we will arrest and prosecute you," Liu added.
At a news conference on Wednesday, federal officials said they seized 8 terabytes of child sexual exploitation videos.
"That's more than 10,000 CD-ROMs full of imagery that's no longer in the hands of child pornographers," said Don Fort, chief of IRS Criminal Investigation.
The porn site, called Welcome to Video, accepted payment in bitcoin and was on the Tor network, which is encrypted and hidden. The site's upload page explicitly asked users not to upload "adult porn." It operated for nearly three years before it was shut down in March 2018.
Investigators targeted hundreds of the sites' users. Among them was Michael Lawson, a father of two young children from Midland, Ga. He is currently serving 121 months in prison and was deemed an "extreme danger" to his community, said Richard Downing, the deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Criminal Division.
"He admitted to engaging in child sexual exploitation and purchasing and downloading images and videos with bitcoin from his home," Downing said. "He installed cameras in his residence and captured video of prepubescent friends of his children using the bathroom and showers."
Authorities say a 23-year-old South Korean national, Jong Woo Son, operated the child pornography website. He is currently serving a prison sentence in South Korea. A U.S. grand jury has also charged Jong in a nine-count indictment that was unsealed Wednesday.
According to Jong's indictment, the child porn site took in more than $370,000 worth of bitcoin during the time it was operating. Liu said authorities are trying to recover the profits, so the money could be distributed to the victims.
The case stemmed from an investigation that started in August 2017 into illicit transactions using cryptocurrency on the darknet, Downing told reporters. "By following the funds on a blockchain, it ultimately uncovered the severity of Welcome to Video," he added.
And IRS special agents were able to trace the transactions to the physical location of the server in South Korea, Fort stated. Authorities used software from the company Chainalysis "to analyze blockchain transactions and map out contributors and users of the site," according to the company.
"We want to enable an entire economy powered by cryptocurrency, but sites like WTV destroy the public's faith in the technology and slow down adoption in the legitimate economy," Chainalysis said in a statement, adding that it seeks to build trust in blockchains.
The Department of Justice say the child porn website "is among the first of its kind to monetize child exploitation videos using bitcoin" — it's more typical for sites to simply provide a way for users to trade these horrifying images with one another.
Data seized from the server is still being analyzed. And U.S. authorities are trying to use the videos, many of which they haven't seen before, to find more child victims. They've notified 38 other countries of leads that were uncovered from the data.
Law enforcement agencies have arrested and charged 337 site users so far, across the U.S. and in the United Kingdom, South Korea, Germany, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Czech Republic, Canada, Ireland, Spain, Brazil and Australia.
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.