October 27, 2017 / 11:51 PM / 10 months ago

U.S. court allows evidence from FBI child porn site probe

BOSTON (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Friday overturned a decision that threw out evidence obtained in an undercover FBI probe to charge a Massachusetts man prosecutors said was a user of the world’s largest child pornography website.

The ruling by 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston came in one of several cases stemming from a wide-ranging probe that privacy advocates have said could ultimately threaten the rights of internet users for years to come.

The court reversed a 2016 decision that held that a Virginia-based federal magistrate judge had no jurisdiction to issue a search warrant used to justify gathering evidence on Alex Levin of Norwood, Massachusetts.

The U.S. Justice Department had no immediate comment. A lawyer for Levin did not respond to a request for comment.

As of May, about 350 people in the United States had been arrested as part of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe into the website Playpen, which the agency said had more than 150,000 users worldwide.

Steven Chase, a Florida man who prosecutors say was its creator, was sentenced in May to 30 years in prison after he was convicted of child pornography-related charges.

The FBI had in February 2015 seized the server hosting Playpen, which operated on the Tor network designed to facilitate anonymous online communication and protect user privacy.

In order to identify its users, authorities sought a search warrant from the Virginia judge allowing them to deploy a “network investigative technique.”

That technique, involving malware, would make a user’s computer to send investigators data any time that user logged onto the website while the FBI operated it for two weeks.

A federal judge in Massachusetts suppressed the evidence against Levin after his lawyers argued the Virginia judge had no authority to authorize searching his out-of-state computer.

Levin also contended the warrant was so general that FBI agents’ reliance on it to investigate him amounted to bad faith. But the three-judge 1st Circuit panel rejected that argument on Friday.

U.S. Circuit Judge Juan Torruella said, at the time the warrant was issued, that the government was faced with a “novel question” of whether it had the authority to do so and turned to the courts for guidance.

“We see no benefit in deterring such conduct - if anything, such conduct should be encouraged, because it leaves it to the courts to resolve novel legal issues,” he wrote.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Richard Chang

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