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Child porn website bust leads to over 300 arrests

Oct 18,2019
A massive multinational crackdown on a Korea-based child pornography website on the so-called dark web led to hundreds of arrests around the globe, police announced Wednesday.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the website was run by a Korean citizen named Son Jong-woo, 23, who was arrested on March 2 last year in a joint operation between the Korean National Police Agency, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) division and Homeland Security Investigations and Britain’s National Crime Agency.

Since the first arrests were made with regard to the website in September 2017, a total of 338 users in 12 countries - including 223 Korean nationals - have been arrested in the multinational operation, according to the Korean National Police Agency’s Cyber Bureau.

The website, called “Welcome To Video,” contained over 250,000 videos accounting for around 8 terabytes of data, making it “the largest child sexual exploitation market by volume of content,” read the U.S. Justice Department’s press release.

The Korean police said Son had been running the website for two years and eight months since June 2015, distributing child pornography to approximately 4,000 users in exchange for bitcoin, a cryptocurrency. The U.S. criminal indictment released on Wednesday showed the website had processed around 7,300 bitcoin transactions, worth more than $370,000.

Son was convicted and is currently serving an 18-month sentence in Korea for trafficking child pornography. Federal authorities in Washington, however, have indicted him on nine additional counts that include money laundering, meaning they could be seeking Son’s extradition to the United States to face justice.

“Through the sophisticated tracing of bitcoin transactions, IRS-CI special agents were able to determine the location of the Darknet server, identify the administrator of the website and ultimately track down the website server’s physical location in South Korea,” said IRS-CI Chief Don Fort. “This large-scale criminal enterprise that endangered the safety of children around the world is no more.”

The U.S. Justice Department said the website was one of the first internet platforms to monetize child exploitation videos using cryptocurrency, and that the videos offered by the website were downloaded approximately one million times.

The probe resulted in raids of businesses and residences of 92 individuals in the United States, and also led to the rescue of at least 23 minors in the United States, Spain and Britain “who were being actively abused by users of the site,” the release read.

The dark web refers to a swath of the internet that is not accessible through regular search engines, the murkiest parts of unindexed internet content known as the deep web. To gain access to these parts of the internet, users have to rely on encrypted software, such as the Tor browser, to hide their identities.

This has led to the dark web being used to host a wide range of illicit content, including child pornography, stolen user data like credit card numbers or identity documentation, weapons and illicit drugs.

“Our message for those who produce, distribute, and receive child pornography is clear,” said Jessie Liu, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. “You may try to hide behind technology, but we will find you and we will arrest and prosecute you.”

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]