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How authorities caught the South Korean man behind one of many world’s greatest baby exploitation websites

Then all of it started to unravel.

However the case is way larger than only one man. Over the virtually three years that the positioning was on-line, customers downloaded information multiple million occasions, in response to a newly unsealed DOJ indictment. No less than 23 youngsters within the US, Spain and the UK who have been being abused by the customers of the positioning have been rescued, the DOJ mentioned in a press launch.

“Children around the world are safer because of the actions taken by US and foreign law enforcement to prosecute this case and recover funds for victims,” mentioned Jessie Okay. Liu, an legal professional for District of Columbia the place the US case was filed. “We will continue to pursue such criminals on and off the darknet in the United States and abroad, to ensure they receive the punishment their terrible crimes deserve.”

In whole, 337 folks from no less than 18 nations who used Welcome To Video have been arrested and charged, the DOJ mentioned. And in a assertion Thursday, South Korea’s Nationwide Police Company (NPA) mentioned 223 of them have been South Korean.

Many Welcome To Video customers doubtless thought they have been untraceable.

The location was on the darknet, the underbelly of the deep net which can’t be accessed by a daily browser. Based on authorities, some prospects paid for the express photos of kid sexual abuse in bitcoin, a digital foreign money that may be spent with out customers disclosing their true id.

However the downfall of Welcome To Video exhibits that bitcoin is not as non-public as some cybercriminals might need thought.

What was Welcome To Video

Based on the indictment launched Wednesday by the DOJ, Welcome to Video started working round June 2015.

The location labored like this: anybody may create a free account. Authorities say customers may obtain the movies in the event that they paid in bitcoin, or in the event that they earned factors by referring new prospects, or importing their very own movies. Based on the indictment, the add web page on Welcome To Video said: “Do not upload adult porn.”

On the time, bitcoin nonetheless wasn’t a extensively used cost technique. The non-profit Web Watch Basis, which works to take away photos and movies of kid sexual abuse from the net, discovered that a number of the most prolific industrial baby sexual abuse websites first began accepting bitcoin as cost in 2014. Based on the DOJ, Welcome To Video was “among the first of its kind to monetize child exploitation videos using bitcoin.”

Bitcoin will be enticing for folks hoping to slide underneath the radar. Bitcoin is decentralized, which means there isn’t a firm or official financial institution which oversees transactions. Customers retailer their bitcoin in a digital account — generally known as a digital pockets — with out having to show their actual id, as they may for a daily brick-and-mortar financial institution.

From about June 2015 to March 2018, Welcome To Video obtained no less than 420 bitcoin via 7,300 transactions with customers in quite a few nations together with the US, the UK and South Korea, the indictment launched Wednesday exhibits. These transactions have been value over $370,000 on the time.

A few of these transactions would in the end assist carry concerning the web site’s collapse.

How authorities introduced down Welcome To Video

To get on the positioning in any respect, customers needed to have particular software program.

As a result of Welcome To Video was hosted on the darknet, it could not be accessed by browsers like Google Chrome or Safari. Customers wanted to obtain software program — comparable to Tor — that hid their Web Protocol deal with (IP deal with), a novel quantity assigned to each system linked to the web.

However in September 2017, authorities did one thing easy, in response to the indictment: they right-clicked on Welcome To Video’s homepage and chosen “view page source.”

Once they did that, they found an unconcealed IP deal with. That IP deal with and one other present in the identical manner October 2017 have been each traced to a residential deal with in South Korea — Son’s alleged residence.

On the similar time, US investigators have been finishing up an undercover operation. As soon as in September 2017 and twice in February 2018, an secret agent despatched bitcoin to an account offered by Welcome To Video.

Every time, the funds have been later transferred into one other bitcoin account — in Son’s title, and registered utilizing Son’s cellphone quantity and e mail, US authorities alleged within the indictment.

In March 2018, authorities searched Son’s home and located the server for Welcome To Video was hosted in Son’s bed room. Authorities additionally seized eight terabytes containing 250,000 sexual assault movies. In whole, 45% of the movies analyzed by the Nationwide Heart for Lacking and Exploited Kids contained photos not “previously known to exist.”

From there, authorities have been in a position to monitor down different suspects. “(This case) involved a lot of cooperation between a lots of different people,” mentioned Urszula McCormack, a associate on the King and Wooden Mallesons legislation agency in Hong Kong who focuses on blockchain, the expertise behind bitcoin. “Often it’s those weak links that expose the whole.”

Knowledge from the server was shared with legislation enforcement officers world wide, who used it to trace down and prosecute prospects of the positioning in 18 nations, in response to a DOJ assertion.

In March 2018, Son was arrested in South Korea, and located responsible of manufacturing and distributing baby pornography, a cost that carries a potential 10 yr jail time period underneath South Korean legislation. In Might this yr, he was sentenced to 18 months in jail, South Korea’s NPA mentioned.

However Son may nonetheless face extra jail time.

In August of final yr, Son was indicted on various baby pornography fees within the US, together with promoting baby pornography which carries a potential 30 yr sentence.

To ensure that him to face these fees, Son would must be extradited to the US — which has an extradition treaty with South Korea. He may very well be arrested if he travels there of his personal accord. One of many causes the US is fascinated with prosecuting Son is that the content material was accessed within the nation.

CNN has reached out to the DOJ to ask if they’ll request an extradition. South Korean police instructed CNN they have not obtained an extradition request from the US — and whereas he is in jail, Son can’t be affected by the US indictment.

The failings in bitcoin

Whereas bitcoin has a fame among the many normal public for secrecy, the truth is a bit totally different.

Every time bitcoin is transferred, particulars of the commerce are recorded on a publicly obtainable, everlasting ledger, mentioned Yihao Lim, a senior analyst from cybersecurity agency FireEye. It is due to this fact potential to see what a person is doing, even you’ll be able to’t see their actual world id.

There are different holes in bitcoin’s potential to keep up anonymity. Within the US, digital foreign money exchanges — the platforms the place folks should purchase and promote bitcoin for actual cash — are required by legislation to confirm their prospects’ actual world identities. Developed nations are more and more adopting these measures.

This all signifies that bitcoin is not actually nameless — it is pseudonymous. For legislation enforcement brokers, the problem is not seeing the transactions — it is linking the bitcoin account with the actual world individual behind them, mentioned Lim.

There are methods for bitcoin customers to remain underneath the radar. However basically, authorities are catching up.

Over the previous yr, instruments that may analyze bitcoin transactions have developed to a excessive stage, mentioned McCormack, from the Hong Kong legislation agency. “People (in the past) weren’t aware that this was a possibility. I think many people these days are not aware of the sophistication of those tools and how much they’re able to glean from patterns,” she mentioned.

Lim mentioned it was a public misunderstanding that utilizing bitcoin was safe. “Yes, they have been successful at being anonymous at the start, but law enforcement has already caught up.”

What occurs now

Regardless of bitcoin’s safety gaps, some inexperienced cybercriminals will in all probability preserve utilizing it, mentioned Lim. In spite of everything, this is not the primary high-profile case the place bitcoin has helped carry down a suspect. In the course of the 2015 trial of the creator of the Silk Street web site — a digital market that allowed customers to illegally commerce medicine — prosecutors confirmed that they’d traced tens of millions of {dollars} in bitcoin to the founder’s private laptop computer.
How FBI caught Ross Ulbricht, alleged creator of criminal marketplace Silk Road

“Many cybercriminals are still misinformed,” Lim mentioned of the legal underworld. “They’re just out there to make a quick buck — they didn’t do their homework enough.”

As for seasoned cybercriminals, many had already switched to different cryptocurrencies, Lim mentioned.

However individuals who have used bitcoin up to now may very well be tracked down at any level. As a result of the general public ledger which data bitcoin transactions is immutable, there is not any technique to take away proof of previous dealings. With regards to the Welcome To Video case, Lim expects extra folks linked with the positioning to be caught.

In a second court docket doc launched Wednesday, US authorities argued that 24 bitcoin accounts ought to be forfeited to authorities, alleging that they have been used “to fund the website and promote the exploitation of children.” A number of the accounts have been additionally used to make transactions on different darknet websites, together with Silk Street and Evolution the place customers should purchase medicine and stolen data.

Within the press launch Wednesday, the DOJ mentioned it deliberate to get better the illicit funds and return them to the victims of the crime.

“Children are our most vulnerable population, and crimes such as these unthinkable,” mentioned Homeland Safety Investigations’ performing govt affiliate director Alysa Erichs in an announcement. “(The) indictment sends a robust message to criminals that, irrespective of how refined the expertise or how widespread the community, baby exploitation won’t be tolerated in america.

“Our total justice system will cease at nothing to stop these heinous crimes, safeguard our youngsters, and produce justice to all.”

The best way to get assist: within the US, contact RAINN by calling their nationwide, 24/7 sexual assault hotline on +1 800 656 4673 or chat with a workers member on their web site. Within the UK, name the Nationwide Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Kids on 0800 808 5000 or go to their web site. Extra assets for shielding youngsters from sexual abuse will be discovered on Darkness to Gentle.

CNN’s Sophie Jeong contributed to this report from Seoul.

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