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Sex Criminals Use Bitcoin. So Do the Police.

Chris Janczewski was finishing up a lengthy investigation into online drug trafficking in Thailand when a source called him about a website in South Korea. Hosted on the darknet, the site encouraged users—including U.S. citizens—to pay Bitcoin to access over a million videos depicting the rape and sexual assault of children as young as six months old.

A special agent with the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigations division, Janczewski was used to tracing cryptocurrency transactions to track money laundering and other forms of organized crime. But he had never worked on a child sexual abuse case. “I was like, well surely the FBI or Homeland Security or somebody is already doing something about this,” he recalls. “Like, why does the IRS need to do something? And then I was poking around and I realized: Nobody was doing it.”


For the next two years, until late 2019, Janczewski found himself at the forefront of the investigation and takedown of what the U.S. Department of Justice has dubbed “the largest darknet child pornography website” in the world.

Cryptocurrencies are increasingly being used to fund child sexual exploitation (CSE), creating new opportunities for law enforcement to track down perpetrators. But experts say success stories are rare: Unlike those responsible for big money crimes like drug trafficking and money laundering, agents tasked with investigating CSE lack the training, knowledge, and resources to pursue the growing number of operations financed by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. With law enforcement behind the curve, hundreds of thousands of sexual predators go uninvestigated, and are free to continue victimizing children.

Contrary to popular belief, some of the most mainstream cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum or Litecoin, can be easily tracked; every transaction is logged in a shared, public ledger known as a blockchain. Criminals can employ various techniques to try and obfuscate their spending, but the records—while harder to find—remain. “I pay you $2,000 in a dark alley, who are the witnesses to that transaction? Just you and I, right?” said Pamela Clegg, director of financial investigations and education at the blockchain analytics company CipherTrace. “With cryptocurrency… the whole world could be the witness.”

But a lack of understanding of what cryptocurrency is and what its use in child exploitation looks like often leads anti-trafficking investigators in the United States and globally to reject cases, or miss crucial pieces of evidence. Clegg cites an example from 2017 in which a team of experienced law enforcement officials from Central America uncovered a website hosting child sex abuse materials (CSAM), complete with Bitcoin addresses that could have identified dozens of users. The team didn’t know how to capture the data before taking down the website and mistakenly lost all of the information.

“I don’t want to paint this as ‘law enforcement doesn’t have experience in crypto,’” Clegg explains. “Law enforcement does amazing work with crypto. It’s primarily the teams that are focused on human trafficking and CSAM that I’m referring to.” In 2019, she gave a speech to 750 members of law enforcement from almost 100 countries, each a specialist in investigating human trafficking and child sexual exploitation. “I asked, ‘How many people have actually worked a case that involved cryptocurrency?’” To Clegg’s dismay, just five people raised their hands.

Sourse: foreignpolicy.com

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