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The FBI took over a now-convicted pedophile’s online accounts for a year-and-a-half as part of an investigation into child abuse, Forbes reports.
The details, outlined in an FBI search warrant, reveal how 23-year-old Utah native Daxton Hansen gave the feds access to his Instagram and Kik accounts after admitting to viewing child pornography during a search of his home.
Hansen had run several private groups on both platforms that saw images and videos of young boys engaged in sexual acts being openly traded among members.
An undercover FBI agent actively ran Hansen’s Kik account from “April 12, 2017, to at least November 13, 2018,” Forbes Thomas Brewster notes, and oversaw numerous explicit chat rooms.
“As of today, the FBI’s Kik sting marks the first publicly documented case in which the U.S. government took over the social media of a child pornography suspect,” Brewster writes. “In doing so, the agents let child abuse material spread for months after they had identified it.”
The feds have previously argued that allowing such types of investigations gives them a better chance of catching additional suspects, as opposed to merely shutting down child abuse channels. Critics, however, say that despite the feds’ intentions, such actions still help perpetuate child abuse.
Adam M. Elewa, an associate at a New York-based law firm that has defended child abuse suspects, says “anywhere from hundreds to thousands of children were revictimized as means to the government’s investigative ends” during the Hansen case.
But Brewster states that although the operation ran for months, “no subsequent prosecutions based on the protracted sting have emerged.”
“The warrant also doesn’t disclose whether the agent distributed illegal content or simply tracked others’ activities,” Brewster writes. “And there’s no indication as to when the chat rooms were shut down, if they ever were.”
In a statement to Forbes, Kik said that it was never informed of any ongoing stings against child abuse rings on its platform. No similar operations regarding Hansen’s Instagram account were mentioned in the warrant.
The investigation is reminiscent of the federal government’s work against the infamous site Playpen, a child pornography hub hosted on the dark web. After seizing the site in 2o15, the FBI ran the service for two weeks in order to uncloak its users, but oversaw a 30 percent membership increase in the process.
“By its own admission, the FBI said 9,000 images and 200 videos were made available by Playpen users while it operated the site from February 20 to March 4, 2015,” Brewster adds. “An additional 13,000 links to child pornography were posted during the FBI’s administration of the site.”
The U.S. government argued that such actions were worthwhile given that it was able to initiate over 200 prosecutions and rescue 49 American children.
Neither the FBI or DOJ have publicly commented on the case and criticisms of its investigation methods. Hansen has since pled guilty to possession of child pornography and was sentenced to 48 months in prison.
Mikael Thalen is a tech and security reporter based in Seattle, covering social media, data breaches, hackers, and more.