Governance & Risk Management , Privacy

Police Arrest 14 in Child Sexual Exploitation Forum Sting

German Police Disrupt Darknet 'Elysium' Online Child Sexual Abuse Platform
Police Arrest 14 in Child Sexual Exploitation Forum Sting
Attempts to visit the darknet Elysium site redirect to this police seizure notice. (Source: BKA)

Police in Europe have arrested 14 individuals as part of an ongoing operation to shutter an online platform, named Elysium, that was created to facilitate child sexual abuse. Authorities say 12 of the 14 defendants "are suspected of having actively taken part in the abuse of children" after having met and communicated via the platform.

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"The Elysium platform, built as a forum, has existed since the end of 2016 and was only accessible via the darknet," Europol, the EU's law enforcement intelligence agency, says. "With over 87,000 members worldwide, the platform was used to exchange child abuse material as well as to make appointments for the sexual abuse of children. Elysium also encompassed chat groups in German, French, Spanish and Italian."

As part of the Elysium investigation, since May, the German Federal Prosecutor's Office as well as the Federal Criminal Police Office - the Bundeskriminalamt, aka BKA - have arrested a number of individuals on charges relating to sexual abuse of children and distributing large amounts of child abuse material online.

"The action of the German authorities, assisted by Europol, has resulted in the arrest of individuals involved not only in the physical abuse of children, but the takedown of a platform, Elysium, used to distribute large amounts of child abuse material," says Steven Wilson, head of Europol's European Cybercrime Center, EC3. "This is a highly significant action in safeguarding children from abuse."

Darknet Site

German authorities have seized the server used to host Elysium. Being a so-called darknet site, it would have only be reachable using the Tor anonymizing browser.

As the arrests demonstrate, however, just because a site exists on the darknet does not make it immune to being disrupted by police. While authorities have declined to release specific details about how the site was identified or disrupted, police have continued to infiltrate forums devoted to illegal activities - including child sexual exploitation, cybercrime, narcotics distribution and extremism - and identify operators, administrators and users (see Authorities Seize 'Darknet' Drug Sites).

"This case highlights that even the bad guys need to keep their systems secure. Simply being on the darknet is no guarantee of security. All systems will have vulnerabilities and if they are not managed and secured properly can eventually be exploited," says Brian Honan, an independent information security consultant who also serves as a cybersecurity adviser to Europol's EC3.

"This operation sends out a strong message to criminals that they are not immune to law enforcement and there is nowhere to hide on the internet," Honan adds. "Given the right resources law enforcement can complete successful operations like this. What we need governments to do is ensure that law enforcement agencies are given the support, resources and international intelligence-sharing frameworks they need to continue to build on these successes."

Elysium Distributed Child Abuse Material

As part of the Elysium investigation, police have released details about four of the suspects:

  • The main suspect is a 39-year-old German national who was "identified and arrested after several months of painstaking investigation," Europol says. Police believe the man operated the platform and provided the technical infrastructure on which it ran.
  • Police suspect a 61-year-old individual, arrested in the Bavaria region of Germany, produced and disseminated child abuse material. "In addition, he is suspected of the sexual abuse of two children aged 5 and 7 years" who are the children of an Austrian forum member, police say. The man was first arrested May 18 after police raided his home, reports German publication Opposition 24.
  • A 56-year-old individual from the German state of Baden-Württemberg was arrested on suspicion of being an Elysium forum and chat group moderator.
  • A 28 year-old man in Austria was arrested on May 16 on suspicion of "having participated in the dissemination of child abuse material, of having severely sexually abused his two children for years and facilitated the sexual abuse of his children by the above suspects."

In addition, Austrian police have arrested a 40-year-old citizen as part of the investigation, while in Germany two men, aged 40 and 41, are being investigated, Opposition 24 reports.

Europol assisted with the German-led takedown, providing analysis, coordination and facilitating the exchange of investigatory information. Other participating agencies included the New Zealand Police, the Italian State Police's postal and communication police service , and Australia's Task Force Argos branch of the Queensland Police Service, which is responsible for investigating online child exploitation and abuse.

Europol says it expects further arrests to occur in Germany, "as well as in other European and non-European countries."

Appeal to Trace Objects

Meanwhile, Honan has urged the public to help with Europol's ongoing efforts to trace objects that appear in sexually explicit material involving minors.

"The most innocent clues can sometimes help crack a case," Europol says in notes that accompany a collection of recent objects or images found during the course of investigations.

"We are requesting your assistance in identifying the origin of some of these objects. We are convinced that more eyes will lead to more leads and will ultimately help to save these children," Europol says, noting that it specially wants to trace the location or country of the objects in question.

"This can be done anonymously," Europol says. "Once the origin of an object is identified, we will inform the competent law enforcement authority of the involved country to further investigate this lead and hopefully speed up the identification of both the offender and the victim."

About the Author

Mathew J. Schwartz

Mathew J. Schwartz

Executive Editor, DataBreachToday & Europe, ISMG

Schwartz is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience in magazines, newspapers and electronic media. He has covered the information security and privacy sector throughout his career. Before joining Information Security Media Group in 2014, where he now serves as the executive editor, DataBreachToday and for European news coverage, Schwartz was the information security beat reporter for InformationWeek and a frequent contributor to DarkReading, among other publications. He lives in Scotland.

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