Magistrate Judge Finds Fifth Amendment Right Not to Enter Encryption Passphrase:
Imagine the government seizes a suspect's hard drive and finds encrypted files inside. Can the government force the suspect to enter in his encryption passphrase so the government can view the decrypted files? Or does the Fifth Amendment privilege give the suspect a legal right not to enter in the passphrase? On November 29, Magistrate Judge Jerome Niedermeier in Vermont handed down the first opinion to squarely address the issue: In re Boucher. Judge Niedermeier ruled that the defendant did have a Fifth Amendment privilege in such circumstances. This is a hard issue, but I tend to think Judge Niedermeier was wrong given the specific facts of this case.

  First, the facts. Boucher was crossing the border from Canada to Vermont when border agents began to suspect he had child pornography in the car. They saw a laptop in the back of the car and opened it up. It was not password-protected, an an agent began to look through it. (By way of background, the Fourth Amendment has an exception at the border that makes this search legal.) The agent came across several files with truly revolting titles that strongly suggested the files themselves were child pornography. The files had been opened a few days earlier, but the agent found that he could not open the file when he tried to do so. Agents asked Boucher if there was child pornography in the computer, and Boucher said he wasn't sure; he downloaded a lot of pornography on to his computer, he said, but he deleted child pornography when he came across it.

  In response to the agents' request, Boucher waived his Miranda rights and agreed to show the agents where the pornography on the computer was stored. The agents gave the computer to Boucher, who navigated through the machine to a part of the hard drive named "drive Z." The agents then asked Boucher to step aside and started to look through the computer themselves. They came across several videos and pictures of child pornography. Boucher was then arrested, and the agents powered down the laptop.

  Now here's where it gets interesting. Two weeks later a government forensic analyst started to analyze the machine. He created a "mirror" copy of the hard drive and then looked at the mirror to see what it contained. But it turned out that the part of the hard drive that was designated "drive Z" was encrypted with the popular software program PGP, and no one — no one, presumably, except for Boucher — knew the password. The government tried to guess the password and failed, so the grand jury issued a subpoena to Boucher ordering him to disclose the password to drive Z. Boucher's counsel them moved to block the subpoena, arguing that he had a Fifth Amendment privilege not to comply. The government responded that it would be happy to just have Boucher enter in the password without the government ever seeing it. The Court thus addressed only whether Boucher had a Fifth Amendment privilege not to enter in the password.

  Judge Niedermeier ruled that Boucher did have such a privilege and quashed the subpoena. According to Judge Niedermeier, entering in the password would be testimonial.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. More on Encryption, the Fifth Amendment, and the "Foregone Conclusion" Exception:
  2. Magistrate Judge Finds Fifth Amendment Right Not to Enter Encryption Passphrase: