Hundreds of people around the world have been arrested following an international operation to take down the largest secret child exploitation website hosted on the “dark web.”
“The sexual exploitation of children is one of the worst forms of evil imaginable. Indeed these crimes are so heinous they are difficult even to speak about. But our government has no higher priority than the safety of our children,” U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu said during a press conference announcing the arrests on Oct. 16.
U.S. prosecutors said the international operation, targeting both the website operator and users, led to investigations in 38 countries and yielded the arrests of 337 people suspected of possessing or sharing child sexual abuse content.
Meanwhile, a 23-year-old South Korean national named Jong Woo Son has been indicted in the United States for operating the website Welcome to Video, which exclusively hosted child sexual exploitation videos that were made available to members using the virtual currency bitcoin.
The operation was led by law enforcement in the United States, the UK, South Korea, and Germany.
In the United States, the homes and businesses of approximately 92 individuals were searched and at least 53 people were arrested from states including New York, New Jersey, California, and Massachusetts, according to Liu. Thirty-four of those people were identified in a press release on Oct. 16. Meanwhile, dozens more are still being investigated.
Son, who was arrested in March last year, is currently serving a prison sentence in South Korea, according to the indictment (pdf). Officials at the press conference didn’t indicate whether they would seek to have Son extradited to the United States.
During the investigation, law enforcement personnel from the United States, the UK, and South Korea discovered over 250,000 unique child sexual exploitation videos stored on Son’s server, which was seized, according to the Justice Department. The videos were being sold to pedophiles worldwide through the dark web; more than 1 million downloads have been made, officials say.
At least 23 minor victims from the United States, Spain, and the UK were rescued from their abusers during the operation, while analysts from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children are still working to identify and rescue more victims.
“Darknet sites that profit from the sexual exploitation of children are among the most vile and reprehensible forms of criminal behavior,” Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division said in a press release.
“This administration will not allow child predators to use lawless online spaces as a shield. Today’s announcement demonstrates that the Department of Justice remains firmly committed to working closely with our partners in South Korea and around the world to rescue child victims and bring to justice the perpetrators of these abhorrent crimes.”
Experts estimate that 1-in-5 girls and 1-in-10 boys in the United States will be sexually exploited before they reach adulthood, according to Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard Downing.
“These young victims are left with permanent psychological, physical, and emotional scars. Protecting children from sexual abuse and exploitation is a priority for the Justice Department,” he said.