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Decrypting laptop doesn't count as self-incrimination, US federal judge rules

Decrypting laptop doesn't count as self-incrimination, US federal judge rules


A Colorado federal judge has ruled that requiring a woman accused of fraud to give up access to the contents of an encrypted hard drive does not violate the Fifth Amendment, which prevents defendants from being forced to testify against themselves.

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A federal judge in Colorado has ruled that decrypting a computer hard drive does not count as self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment. Judge Robert Blackburn has ordered Ramona Fricosu, who is charged with fraud, to release the contents of her computer's encrypted hard drive. Fricosu had argued that doing so would require her to essentially testify against herself, something which is prohibited by the US Bill of Rights.

The case is one of a handful in the past few years that have addressed whether defendants can be legally forced to provide access to encrypted information. In March 2010, a Michigan district judge rejected a subpoena to force Thomas Kirschner to give up access to his computer on Fifth Amendment grounds. In Vermont, however, Sebastien Boucher was required to decrypt an incriminating hard drive — the court reasoned that although the password might be considered protected information, the contents of the drive itself could be considered evidence. This second case was cited by Blackburn in his ruling.

Although a precedent is far from established, groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have argued that "this could be a very important case in applying Americans' Fifth Amendment rights in the digital age." So far, no ruling has required the password itself to be given up, but this case suggests that keeping the contents of an encrypted drive secret is far from an unassailable right.

Image Credit: M Thierry (Flickr)