After the largest known U.S. law enforcement hacking operation to date, Michael Fluckiger was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Thursday for engaging in a child exploitation enterprise. The operation has been a focal point in a wider and expanding debate on American law enforcement hacking.
Fluckiger, 46, was a co-administrator on Playpen, a Tor hidden service-based child exploitation website with 150,000 users. He pleaded guilty in Dec. 2015.
“As a result of the ongoing investigation, at least 48 alleged hands-on abusers have been prosecuted and 49 American children who were subjected to sexual abuse have been successfully identified or rescued,” according to a Justice Department statement.
The FBI took control of Playpen in 2015 by hacking the site, taking control of it, running it for several weeks and identifying visitors. The process is what the FBI calls a Network Investigative Technique (NIT) — the agency’s euphemism for hacking and malware deployment in the course of an investigation.
The tactic generated controversy because of the scope of users impacted. FBI Special Agent Daniel Alfin argued that the malware was more limited than critics asserted, according to Motherboard.
“The NIT was deployed against users who accessed posts in the ‘Preteen Videos—Girls Hardcore’ forum because users accessing posts in that forum were attempting to access or distribute or advertise child pornography,” Alfin testified in court last year. “At the point where a user in that forum accessed a post, we can affirmatively state that a user has attempted to access child pornography.”
The NIT discovered the real IP addresses, MAC addresses and other identifying information about approximately 1,300 of the website’s visitors despite the site and individuals being on Tor, the anonymity network designed to protect users’ identity.
A fight was stoked over Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and how critics contended the vast FBI hacking broke the rule. The Justice Department ultimately succeeded in changing the rule last month and granting law enforcement vast new powers. The Stop Mass Hacking Act, aimed at stalling the change and starting a national debate over government hacking, failed to gain any momentum in Congress.
Expansion of government hacking is going to be a major flashpoint in the coming year. Although government-mandated backdoors into encryption are in large part being rejected on a bipartisan basis in congress, more robust government hacking is increasingly seen as the solution in Congress.
Two other American men, Steven Chase and David Lynn Browning, were charged for their roles as administrators on Playpen. Browning also plead guilty, Chase was found guilty after a trial.
You can read the indictment against Fluckiger here.