US and European police have arrested more than 900 suspected paedophiles and identified nearly 300 victims after taking down one of the largest child abuse networks on the dark web.
Over 350 suspects have been held in Europe alone as part of the huge international crackdown, which was triggered after a major paedophile forum was infiltrated by investigators from the FBI.
The US administrator of the Playpen website – which offered its 150,000 users the chance to share indecent images and film of children without detection – was last week jailed by a North Carolina judge for 30 years.
Investigators identified Steven Chase and two of his accomplices after he inadvertently revealed the IP address of the website to law enforcement officials monitoring its contents in 2014, despite the fact he was using anonymising software at the time.
Europol, the FBI and a number of other international law enforcement agencies then launched Operation Pacifier in a bid to track down Playpen’s tens of thousands of members.
The FBI attracted considerable criticism after it was revealed investigators kept the website open as part of their efforts to identify the paedophiles who continued to use it, oblivious to the fact that it had been seized by law enforcement.
Commenting on the arrests made as a result of Operation Pacifier, European Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos said: “The sexual exploitation of children is a heinous crime against every moral value in our societies, and it should never go unpunished.
“Online sexual child abuse is a fight that we must fight together, and I welcome the crucial transatlantic cooperation between the FBI and Europol in this operation.
“It is precisely by working together that we can make a difference, by protecting our children and punishing those who are behind this revolting crime.”
Many paedophiles now use the dark web to exchange child abuse material, share grooming tips and get access to minors they can physically abuse.
An investigation conducted by the Times of London newspaper this morning revealed that as many as 10,000 Britons signed up to another major paedophile forum before it was closed down.
The paper used information released onto the open web after cyber vigilantes in February targeted Freedom Hosting II, which provided servers for Paradise Village, one of the largest child abuse websites on the dark web.
Healthcare workers and a former school governor were among the British users of the site identified by the Times, which checked information revealed by the Freedom Hosting II hack against social media profiles.
In an editorial, the paper told readers it should not be left to vigilantes to police the dark net, and that law enforcement agencies must do more to target the people behind hidden websites that offer paedophiles the opportunity to share child abuse material anonymously.