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US, South Korea bust giant child porn site by following a bitcoin trail

Users could access the VIP account on the site in exchange for bitcoin.

US and Korean authorities say they broke up one of the world’s largest markets for child pornography, a crime that is proliferating at a furious pace with the rise of cryptocurrency and encrypted online content.

The bust was revealed Wednesday as the US unsealed an indictment against Jong Woo Son, 23, who prosecutors say operated a Darknet market that accepted bitcoin and distributed more than 1 million sexually explicit videos involving children. Son, a South Korean national, is serving 18 months in prison after being convicted there.

Since agents shuttered the site in March 2018, authorities have arrested 337 site users in 11 countries including the UK, Germany, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and in more than two dozen US states. The site, which encouraged users to upload videos, included hundreds of thousands of illicit images not previously seen by authorities.

Authorities say they rescued at least 23 minor victims in the US, UK and Spain who were being actively abused by the site’s users.

“What we are here to discuss today, the sexual exploitation of children, is one of the worst forms of human evil imaginable,” Jessie Liu, the US attorney for the District of Columbia, said Wednesday as she announced the charges.

Images of sexual exploitation have mushroomed since 2014, when the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received reports of 1.1 million incidents of child pornography. By last year, that number had risen to 18.4 million.

The Darknet refers to encrypted online content that hides from traditional search engines. The anonymity of the Darknet has fostered crimes like narcotics trafficking, money laundering and child pornography, prosecutors say. Cryptocurrency also has been cited in a wide range of crimes in which people seek to move money anonymously around the world.

Son’s site, called Welcome to Video, contained more than 250 000 unique videos. Of those, 45% contained new images that were previously unknown, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Users could join the site free with a user name and password, allowing them to download videos, according to court records involving a user charged in Washington. They earned “points” by uploading videos and referring new users. They could buy a “VIP” account that allowed unlimited downloads for six months if they exchanged bitcoin valued at $328 in March 2018. The site was run out of Son’s bedroom, the records show.

The US disclosed information about a few dozen of the accused site users, including former law enforcement personnel and a Georgia man who videotaped children in his own bathroom. The other site users who’ve been charged weren’t named. Two users took their own lives after search warrants were executed, authorities said.

Son was indicted under seal in Washington in August 2018 on child pornography charges, according to court records.

Agents from the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation Division determined the location of the Darknet server in South Korea, identified Son and found the physical location of the website, according to Don Fort, chief of the division. They also unmasked users hiding behind bitcoin transactions, Fort said.

“Our agency’s ability to analyse the blockchain and de-anonymise bitcoin transactions allowed for the identification of hundreds of predators around the world,” Fort said.

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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