U.S. judge rejects challenge in FBI child porn website probe

(Reuters) - A Washington state school administrator has lost a high-profile bid to suppress evidence against him secured by the FBI during an operation in which it secretly ran one of the Internet’s largest child pornography websites in order to catch its users.

U.S. District Judge Robert Bryan in Tacoma, Washington, on Thursday rejected arguments by Jay Michaud, one of 137 people facing U.S. charges in the probe, that a search warrant that enabled the FBI to conduct the sting was unconstitutional.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation had in February 2015 seized the server hosting Playpen, a child porn website that operated on the Tor network, which is designed to facilitate anonymous online communication and protect user privacy.

In order to identify its 214,898 members, authorities sought a search warrant from a Virginia judge allowing them to deploy a “network investigative technique” that would cause a computer to send them data any time a user logged on while the FBI operated the website for two weeks.

Michaud, a school administrator in Vancouver, Washington, argued that deploying the malware on his computer exceeded the warrant’s scope as he was outside Virginia, and that the warrant lacked specificity and was unconstitutional.

But Bryan rejected Michaud’s arguments and said the warrant particularized that it was intended for searching computers accessing the website, which authorities called “Website A.”

While the FBI may have anticipated tens of thousands of suspects, “that does not negate particularity, because it would be highly unlikely that Website A would be stumbled upon accidentally, given the nature of the Tor network,” Bryan wrote.

Colin Fieman, Michaud’s lawyer, said he disagreed with the ruling, saying the investigation involved methods he believed “erode the privacy rights of everyone.”

The investigation, first reported by Reuters in July, gained attention recently amid Michaud’s challenge. His lawyers say 137 people have been charged out of 100,000 user accounts that accessed Playpen while the FBI ran it.

Bryan previously rejected arguments that the case should be dismissed because the FBI’s child pornography distribution during the probe had no legal excuse and offended decency standards.

The investigation follows at least two earlier FBI probes since 2012 in which investigators took control of Tor network-based child pornography websites, including a hosting service called Freedom Hosting.

Ireland’s High Court last month cleared the way for the extradition of its suspected owner, Eric Marques, who the FBI has called the world’s biggest child pornography facilitator.