I’m pleased to join our key partners here today. And I’d like to build on what U.S. Attorney Liu said.
In August 2017, an investigation began into the illicit transactions of virtual currency on the Darknet. By following the funds on a blockchain, it ultimately uncovered the severity of Welcome to Video, a Tor network-based child pornography site that accepted payment in bitcoin. The site launched in June 2015 and operated until March 2018, when law enforcement shut it down and arrested its operator. The site operated anonymously as a “hidden service” on the Tor network in order to hide its location and that of its users. Such hidden services allow child sex offenders to establish online communities dedicated to the sexual exploitation of children in plain sight of law enforcement and the public. These communities brazenly promote victimizing children and even infants, educate members about how to perpetrate abuse without getting caught, encourage members to continue documenting their abuse, and distribute those videos and pictures to groups of predators that can reach into the hundreds of thousands.
Operators of anonymization services like Tor must ask themselves whether they are doing their part to protect children and make their platform inhospitable to criminals. Society must decide whether it will accept these lawless online spaces, whether American taxpayers should fund them, or whether we will instead demand that providers act to prioritize protecting children from online predators.
We work tirelessly with our local, state, and international law enforcement partners to protect our youth from perpetrators like those on this site. Today, we unseal and announce not just the prosecution of the site administrator, Jong Woo Son, but also dozens of prosecutions of site users across the country. For example, one user, Michael Lawson, was a 36-year-old father of two young children from Midland, Georgia, who admitted to engaging in child sexual exploitation and purchasing and downloading images and videos with bitcoin in his home. He installed cameras in his residence and captured video of prepubescent friends of his children using the bathroom and showers. The fact that he not only recorded and uploaded these videos, but also the sickening steps he took to conceal his actions, demonstrate the extreme danger he posed to the community. This individual was sentenced to serve 121 months in prison, followed by 10 years of supervised release after his plea to a superseding information charging him with one count of receipt of child pornography.
A forfeiture complaint was also unsealed today. The complaint alleges that law enforcement traced payments of bitcoin to the Darknet site by following the flow of funds on the blockchain. The virtual currency accounts identified in the complaint were allegedly used by 24 individuals in five countries to fund the website and promote the exploitation of children. The forfeiture complaint seeks to recover these funds and, ultimately through the restoration process, return the illicit funds to victims of the crime.
Here, the efforts of a private sector company, Chainanalysis, significantly assisted that tracing. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which played a crucial role in analyzing the 250,000 videos from the website. Nearly half of the videos seized in the operation had not previously been known to NCMEC and law enforcement. Work is ongoing to identify and rescue the child victims depicted in these videos.
Child exploitation is abhorrent and reprehensible. Each year, millions of children fall prey to sexual predators. Experts estimate that one-in-five girls and one-in-10 boys in the United States will be sexually exploited before they reach adulthood. These young victims are left with permanent psychological, physical, and emotional scars. Protecting children from sexual abuse and exploitation is a priority for the Justice Department. We will continue to fight to protect the rights, interests, and safety of children. The perpetrators of these horrifying crimes should be on alert that law enforcement will not give up in identifying, apprehending, and holding them accountable.
As today’s indictment shows, the Department of Justice will do everything it can to prevent child predators from using the dark net as a shield for their crimes. I commend our partners at the IRS-CI, ICE Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C. and our Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section and Office of International Affairs, as well as our South Korean, United Kingdom, and other international law enforcement partners.
And now, I’d like to turn things over to Don Fort, Chief of IRS Criminal Investigation.
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