International child abuse ring dismantled by police who ran fake sites to identify abusers

Hundreds of arrests around the world follow police operation that harnessed the dark web

A major international child abuse ring has been dismantled by police who controversially “captured” and operated for several months online sites which shared images of children being abused.

Police and other law enforcement agencies actively ran the child abuse sites, believed to be the world’s two largest, in an effort to identify the abusers who hid their true identities on the Tor network.

Hundreds of arrests took place worldwide following the operation. One of the first Britons arrested pleaded guilty at Blackfriars Crown Court, south London, and was jailed in January. Vithusan Puvaneswaran, 21, used the encrypted Tor software to access anonymously one US site and build up a massive collection of photos and videos. National Crime Agency officers found “sickening images of children in cots” and other abuse material when they raided his home in west London last year.

His identity was uncovered by US investigators who seized and then began operating a US-based site known as Playpen. US court documents describe the site as “the largest remaining known child pornography hidden service in the world”.

In February 2015, FBI agents seized control of the site and used it to hack the computers of users to reveal their true identities and arrest them. It is claimed the FBI identified more than 1,300 users of the site in a two-week period and passed on information to forces all over the world. Arrests as far afield as Greece and Chile as well as Britain followed, according to one report by the website Vice Motherboard.

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A major joint operation targeting online child abuse images has already caught nearly 700 alleged paedophiles (Getty)

The US operation was run jointly with a Europol operation which targeted a second so-called “dark web” child abuse site based in Europe which also employed Tor encryption software to hide users’ identities.

Tor – which stands for The Onion Router – gives many layers of privacy protection by routing the user’s unique computer address through thousands of servers before delivering it to the child abuse site. This network makes it almost impossible for law enforcement to trace the original source. The network was developed by the US military to protect its communications but became popular with political activists facing persecution. 

The FBI operation led to the arrest of three US citizens alleged to have administered the site. Two have pleaded guilty while a third is still being dealt with. The US site was uncovered following a joint investigation by Australian and Europol police into a separate child abuse site which has proved crucial in cracking open the international child sex ring.

Australian police gained access to KidClub, one of the world’s biggest child abuse networks with more than 400,000 members, allegedly controlled by a Danish citizen. To join and access the images, members had to provide graphic videos and photos of their own abuse. Child victims held signs bearing the words “the KidClub” and their abuser’s username.

The Australian officers were able to identify an Adelaide man called Shannon McCoole. McCoole, 34, who was a key administrator of the online site, was jailed for 35 years for sexually abusing children in his care last year. After arresting him police impersonated him online for several months, enabling them to hijack the site and identify other abusers including the US website organisers.

They also identified a key Danish abuser, described as one of Europe’s most prolific paedophiles, who they say also helped control KidClub. The 48-year-old was arrested after the Australian detectives posing as McCoole engaged him in an online conversation while Danish detectives entered his house to arrest him and gain access to his computer.

The arrested man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has gone on trial in Denmark. Investigators said there was evidence to suggest that he was responsible for uploading 3,696 photos and 116 videos of child abuse. Danish police said the site’s membership rules undoubtedly led to many sexual attacks on children. Prosecutors told the court that the man allegedly travelled to Romania with the intention to “buy or in some other way acquire an infant for the purposes of abusing the child sexually”. 

The man denies being a senior figure in the network. McCoole gave evidence against him last December via video from prison.

Europol director Rob Wainwright said Operation Pacifier had succeeded in shutting down the site and securing its abuse images so they could not be used again. He said the investigation had generated more than 3,200 cases.