Bitcoin and child pornography — a connection we cannot tolerate

News that federal law enforcement agencies took down an international child pornography network leaves us with mixed emotions: joy and relief that criminals faced charges and anger and sadness that so many children suffered for the twisted pleasure of adults.

The case offers another piece of good news: even though the child pornography website sought to hide from authorities by lurking on the dark web and by conducting all transactions in Bitcoin, law enforcement was still able to arrest 337 people involved. That’s because a couple of them were sloppy with their encryption and left a string of transactions exposed. Good news, but not great. The site served 1 million Bitcoin accounts.

Jong Woo Son, a 23-year-old South Korean, was indicted on charges of operating Welcome to Video, an online market for child sexual exploitation material that held 250,000 unique videos. The Justice Department, IRS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement made a joint announcement of the arrests; the four Texans included two law enforcement agents.

• Michael Ezeagbor, 22, of Pflugerville, Texas, was arrested and charged in the District of Columbia with conspiracy to distribute child pornography.

• Eliseo Arteaga Jr., 28, of Mesquite, Texas, pleaded guilty in the Northern District of Texas to possession of prepubescent child pornography. He is awaiting sentencing.

• Richard Nikolai Gratkowski, 40, of San Antonio, a former Homeland Security Investigations special agent, was arrested in the Western District of Texas. Gratkowski pleaded guilty to the indictment charging one count of receipt of child pornography and one count of access with intent to view child pornography. Gratkowski was sentenced to serve 70 months in prison followed by 10 years of supervised release, and ordered to pay $35,000 in restitution to seven victims and a $10,000 assessment.

• Paul Casey Whipple, 35, of Hondo, Texas, a U.S. Border Patrol Agent, was arrested in the Western District of Texas, on charges of sexual exploitation of children/minors, production, distribution and possession of child pornography. Whipple remains in custody awaiting trial in San Antonio.

The devastating line in the announcement was that the site had 1 million Bitcoin accounts, leading agents to conclude it had capacity to serve at least 1 million clients. And they only got 337.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are most useful for vice and crime. We acknowledge that some entrepreneur might come up with a legitimate business idea that requires customers pay in cryptocurrency, rather than dollars, euros or yen. And we acknowledge some users hold political philosophies that are skeptical of central banks and national currencies, and they have the right to those views and to privacy. But the vast majority of people who buy Bitcoin are doing something they shouldn’t, whether that is buying illegal pornography, gambling illegally, or making a bad investment.

It is critical that we preserve the ability of law enforcement to access digital information, whether that means exotic cryptocurrency accounts, social media messaging or basic servers, email and websites. And we expect companies that operate technology to cooperate with investigations designed to protect the most vulnerable.

The operation rescued 23 children who were victims of ongoing sexual abuse. That is a victory, and it should spur us to do more.

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