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Authorities decrypt defendant's laptop, avoiding potential Fifth Amendment conflict

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Federal authorities have successfully decrypted the drive of a Colorado woman without her help, making a judge's order for her to decrypt the laptop moot and removing a potential conflict between this ruling and another recently-decided case.

Padlock Macbook
Padlock Macbook

A potential legal conflict over encryption has been narrowly avoided. After ordering defendant Ramona Fricosu to decrypt her laptop to provide evidence in a fraud case, US federal authorities have successfully retrieved its contents without her help. Fricosu had previously argued that entering the key would count as testimony against herself, violating her Fifth Amendment rights, but was overruled by a Colorado judge. Now, Fricosu's attorney says that authorities must have "must have used or found successful one of the passwords the co-defendant provided them," rendering the ruling moot.

Since Fricosu will no longer have to enter the password for the computer, the question of whether or not she should be forced to do so won't come into play if she later appeals, erasing the possible conflict between this judge's ruling and another recently-decided case. In that ruling, the federal appeals court in a different circuit found that if prosecutors didn't know the contents of the drive and couldn't prove that the defendant knew the password, the act of entering it was a form of self-incriminating testimony. Fricosu's prosecutors, however, did not appear to know what the laptop contained.

Because of this, if the case had been appealed and upheld it would have created a murky legal standard for decryption, making it unclear what is required to turn decrypting a drive from new testimony to a "foregone conclusion" that's not affected by the Fifth Amendment. It's possible that the conflict between the two rulings would have been enough for the Supreme Court to accept a case that deals with decryption, effectively settling the matter nationwide. Now, the judge's decision holds less weight than one made by an appeals court, so critics of the Fricosu ruling may have less to worry about in the near future. However, this also means that we're not likely to have a final word on whether court-ordered decryption is legal for some time.