American citizens can be ordered to decrypt their PGP-scrambled hard drives for police to peruse for incriminating files, a federal judge in Colorado ruled today in what could become a precedent-setting case.
Judge Robert Blackburn ordered a Peyton, Colo., woman to decrypt the hard drive of a Toshiba laptop computer no later than February 21--or face the consequences including contempt of court.
Blackburn, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled that the Fifth Amendment posed no barrier to his decryption order. The Fifth Amendment says that nobody may be "compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself," which has become known as the right to avoid self-incrimination.
"I find and conclude that the Fifth Amendment is not implicated by requiring production of the unencrypted contents of the Toshiba Satellite M305 laptop computer," Blackburn wrote in a 10-page opinion today. He said the All Writs Act, which dates back to 1789 and has been used to require telephone companies to aid in surveillance, could be invoked in forcing decryption of hard drives as well.
Ramona Fricosu, who is accused of being involved in a mortgage scam, has declined to decrypt a laptop encrypted with Symantec's PGP Desktop that the FBI found in her bedroom during a raid of a home she shared with her mother and children (and whether she's even able to do so is not yet clear).
Colorado Springs attorney Phil Dubois, who once represented PGP creator Phil Zimmermann, now finds himself fighting the feds over encryption a second time.
"I hope to get a stay of execution of this order so we can file an appeal to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals," Fricosu's attorney, Phil Dubois, said this afternoon. "I think it's a matter of national importance. It should not be treated as though it's just another day in Fourth Amendment litigation." (See CNET's interview last year with Dubois, who once represented PGP creator Phil Zimmermann.)
Dubois said that, in addition, his client may not be able to decrypt the laptop for any number of reasons. "If that's the case, then we'll report that fact to the court, and the law is fairly clear that people cannot be punished for failure to do things they are unable to do," he said.
Today's ruling from Blackburn sided with the U.S. Department of Justice, which argued, as CNET reported last summer, that Americans' Fifth Amendment right to remain silent doesn't apply to their encryption passphrases. Federal prosecutors, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment this afternoon, claimed in a brief that:
"Public interests will be harmed absent requiring defendants to make available unencrypted contents in circumstances like these. Failing to compel Ms. Fricosu amounts to a concession to her and potential criminals (be it in child exploitation, national security, terrorism, financial crimes or drug trafficking cases) that encrypting all inculpatory digital evidence will serve to defeat the efforts of law enforcement officers to obtain such evidence through judicially authorized search warrants, and thus make their prosecution impossible."
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