The sting operation is a well-established tactic used in law enforcement. Traditionally, stings would involve a police officer posing as a prostitute or undercover officers posing as drug sellers/buyers. For the most part, these sting operations are considered legal, save for some that courts deemed entrapment.
When law enforcement agencies conduct sting operations online, however, the legal and ethical boundaries sometimes begin to blur. And in the case of an FBI sting operation conducted last year, critics have said that the FBI committed the very crimes it was trying to stop.
In early 2015, the FBI discovered the location of servers for "the largest remaining known child pornography hidden service in the world," according to news sources. Rather than announcing the bust and shutting down the website, however, the FBI moved the servers back to the agency's facility. The site continued to operate for 13 more days, allowing users to access some 23,000 illegal pictures and videos of child pornography.
The FBI infected the site with malware, allowing agents to identify the real ISP addresses of about 1,300 users. Based on what they found, the agency was able to bring criminal charges against 137 people.
In the past, the Justice Department has argued that pictures and videos of child pornography cause harm to the victims each time they are viewed. If that's the case, how can the FBI justify operating a child pornography website for nearly two weeks? Some have claimed that it was a necessary evil meant to serve a larger good. But the ethical questions involved in this operation may not be so easily answered.
Some criminal defense attorneys with connections to the case have also argued that the FBI's methods were irresponsible. An attorney representing one of the accused defendants said: “what the government did in this case is comparable to flooding a neighborhood with heroin in the hope of snatching an assortment of low-level drug users.”
To be sure, the battle against child pornography and other sex crimes will continue to be waged online. And as technology becomes more and more sophisticated, we will no doubt continue to face difficult ethical dilemmas about what law enforcement agencies can and cannot do to catch alleged criminals.