- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2017

DALLAS (AP) - A case involving the FBI taking over a child porn website as part of a sting operation has sparked an ethics debate among legal scholars and defense attorneys, including lawyers for a Texas man caught in the sting.

Federal prosecutors are defending the agency’s decision to secretly seize, control and monitor a child pornography website for two weeks to catch child predators in 2015, The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/2jkFt8v ) reports. During that time, tens of thousands of child porn images were uploaded to the site.

The government usually takes down such sites immediately. But the FBI obtained a search warrant from a federal judge in Virginia that allowed the agency to run the website on a government-controlled server and hack into the computers of people who accessed the site’s content. Agents weren’t authorized to look through a computer’s files or search other content.

Many defense attorneys have filed motions to suppress the evidence from the sting, though legal experts say most attempts at getting charges dismissed have failed. Some judges have ruled the government acted inappropriately.

Andrew Crocker, an attorney with the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, which deals with civil liberties in the digital world, said the government abused its power in these cases.

“They got a single warrant to hack into the computers of anyone visiting this website without any limitation,” he told the newspaper.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Dallas says the agency acted within the law. The FBI has declined to comment on the operation.

Crocker’s argument was echoed by attorneys for Daryl Pawlak, who was indicted in Dallas on charges of receipt and possession of child pornography. Prosecutors allege that Pawlak accessed the site from his work computer.

“The government has taken leaps and bounds over the line of acceptable investigative techniques when it exploited and re-victimized thousands of children without taking any precautions to minimize the harm to them,” attorney Steven Jumes said in court documents. “Congress has long recognized that each viewing of child pornography re-victimizes the child.”

Jumes told The Dallas Morning News that the case has national significance because it challenges the government’s authority to hack into and search computers.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jamie L. Hoxie said in court records filed in Pawlak’s case that the technology the FBI used was “somewhat novel,” but within the bounds of the law.

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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

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