The United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut announced the sentencing of a member of the darkweb child abuse forum “Playpen.” The pedophile was one of the users who had spent the most time on the forum during a period of two weeks when the Federal Bureau of Investigation controlled the site.
The United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut, John H. Durham, revealed that a United States District Judge had sentenced Michael Bauer, 35, to almost three years in prison followed by another five years of supervised release and a lifetime on the sex offender registry. The total prison sentence was for 35 months. With the federal prison good behavior program, Bauer could spend less than 30 months in prison with an 85% sentence reduction automatically applied and only removed after an inmate violates prison guidelines or laws.
In a Hartford federal courtroom, U.S. District Judge Vanessa L. Bryant passed down the sentence as a response to Bauer guilty plea to a single count of possession of child pornography. In May 2018, in front of the same judge, Bauer waived his right to indictment and pleaded guilty to the child pornography possession charge listed in a criminal information document filed prior to his arrest in late 2015.
According to court documents and information provided by government officials in court, the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided Bauer’s home the same year they seized the servers that hosted Playpen. This is only notable because many now-convicted Playpen users landed in police custody as recent as 2018. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement agencies raided the majority of the site’s former members in 2016 and 2017—at least one year after the server seizure.
Although Bauer could simply have been simpler to build a case against than other members or found himself near the top of an alphabetically ordered list, his 2015 arrest could have been due to the amount of time spent on Playpen. While some convicted Playpen users spent as few as three hours on the site between February and March 4, 2015. Bauer, by March, had used the site for more than 50 hours in total. The Federal Bureau of Investigation learned this information after seizing Playpen from servers in North Carolina and seamlessly transferring it to servers under federal control in Virginia. The feds then programmed parts of the forum to execute a Network Investigative Technique (NIT) on the computers of Playpen users.
The NIT, as described in dozens of court decisions, was a piece of drive-by malware that exploited a vulnerability in some versions of the Tor Browser and its parent browser, Mozilla’s Firefox. The so-called “malware” sent the user’s true IP address, MAC address, and other identifying information back to FBI headquarters in Virginia where the FBI had been gathering evidence against Playpen users. Due to both jurisdictional issues and potential Fourth Amendment violations, many Playpen users fought to suppress all evidence found as a result of the NIT execution.
After identifying Bauer via the NIT in March 2015, the FBI subpoenaed the internet service provider associated with the address the NIT revealed. The internet service provider responded with the information of the account holder. As expected, the account owner was Michael Bauer at an address in North Branford, Connecticut. By December 2015, the FBI had gathered enough evidence to obtain a search warrant. On December 10, federal agents raided the North Branford home. They seized 19 electronic devices including laptops, SD cards, cell phones, and hard drives.
At an FBI lab, forensic analysts carved through the seized storage devices and found more than 100,000 pictures of child abuse and more than 1,300 videos of similar content. Court documents revealed that many of the pictures and videos contained “sadistic and masochistic conduct.” Bauer’s devices contained more content than the majority of arrested Playpen members combined. Other Playpen members have received far lengthier prison sentences for possessing less than 100 illegal pictures and videos.
Bauer is currently free on a $100,000 bond and is not required to report to the Board of Prisons until January 2019.