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United States v. Anzalone

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

October 28, 2016



          Patti B. Saris Chief United States District Judge.


         Defendant Vincent Anzalone is charged with one count of possession of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B) and one count of receipt of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(2)(A).

         The defendant has moved to dismiss the indictment on the basis that the government acted outrageously in maintaining the child pornography website Playpen for two weeks during an FBI investigation. After an evidentiary hearing, the defendant's motion to dismiss (Docket No. 52) is DENIED.


         The Court described the facts of this case in its order denying the defendant's motion to suppress. United States v. Anzalone, No. CR 15-10347-PBS, 2016 WL 5339723, at *1-5 (D. Mass. Sept. 22, 2016). The Court assumes familiarity with that opinion.

         The Court held an evidentiary hearing on this motion on October 14, 2016, in which FBI Special Agent Daniel Alfin testified credibly. The Court relies on the evidence at that hearing as well as the affidavits of FBI Special Agents Douglas Macfarlane and Daniel Alfin and the government's response to a discovery order in a similar case in another district, which was submitted by the defense. See Docket No. 48, Ex. 2; Docket No. 83, Ex. 1; Docket No. 78, Ex. 1.

         Playpen was a website dedicated largely to child pornography. Playpen's administrator sought to limit access to the site to those using the Tor network. In his affidavit, Special Agent Macfarlane described the mechanics of the Tor network. The Tor network, also known as The Onion Router, is an anonymity network that masks a user's IP address. To access the Tor network, a user must download an add-on to the user's existing browser or download the Tor browser bundle. To ensure anonymity for its users, the Tor network bounces communications through various relay computers. When a user accesses a website, the IP address of the last computer in that chain is displayed, rather than the user's IP address. The network therefore “prevents someone attempting to monitor an Internet connection from learning what sites a user visits, prevents the sites the user visits from learning the user's physical location, and it lets the user access sites which could otherwise be blocked.” Macfarlane Aff. ¶ 8, Docket No. 48, Ex. 2.

         Within the Tor network, sites can be designed as “hidden services.” Hidden services allow websites and other servers to hide their location. Like traditional websites, these sites “are hosted on computer servers that communicate through IP addresses.” Id. ¶ 9. Unlike such websites, however, the “IP address for the web server is hidden and instead is replaced with a Tor-based web address, which is a series of algorithm-generated characters” followed by the suffix “.onion.” Id.

         Due to a misconfiguration of the server hosting Playpen, the server's IP address was made publicly available. This glitch offered the FBI a rare opportunity to locate the server, find the administrator, and identify the site's users. When the FBI learned of the server's IP address, it secured a search warrant for the server. It executed that search warrant in mid-January 2015 at CetriLogic, a server hosting company located in North Carolina. The FBI obtained a copy of the Playpen site at that time.

         A few weeks later, on February 19, 2015, the FBI arrested Steven Chase -- Playpen's principal administrator -- and assumed control of Playpen, moving a copy of the site to a government server in the Eastern District of Virginia. From that location, the government operated the website for two weeks, from February 20 to March 4, 2015, in order to identify the IP addresses of Playpen users. After procuring a warrant, the government deployed a Network Investigative Technique (NIT) on users' computers that caused those computers to transmit their IP address and other pieces of identifying information back to the government. The FBI paired users' IP addresses with the content they accessed on the site. The government then sought additional warrants to search users' homes for child pornography.

         Most of Playpen's content was not hosted directly on the Playpen site; instead, Playpen operated primarily as a bulletin board on which users posted links to other websites from which child pornography could be downloaded along with the passwords needed to download and decrypt the illegal files. Users would generally post “preview” images as well.

         During the two-week period that the government operated Playpen, these links remained mostly accessible to the site's visitors. Users clicked on 67, 000 unique links on the website during these two weeks. Of the 67, 000 links, approximately 25, 000 were links to particular image files and the majority of the images depicted child pornography. The remaining links were to encrypted archives containing multiple image or video files. During the government's operation of the site, users posted 13, 000 new links. Users had posted approximately 110, 000 links over the entire lifespan of the site prior to the government's takeover.

         The government catalogued many of the images and videos that were made available via these links. Accessing these files required an agent to click on a link, download the files, and then enter the provided password to view them. The government accessed and documented approximately 48, 000 images and 200 videos that were posted sometime between the launch of the site and the government takeover. The government documented another 9, 000 images and 200 videos made ...

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