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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:
172 Comments
More on Encryption, the Fifth Amendment, and the "Foregone Conclusion" Exception: My Friday post on the Fifth Amendment and encryption discussing the Boucher case led to a very long and interesting comment thread, including several comments from readers who thought it clearly wrong to say that Boucher could be required to enter in the password even if no one doubted that he knew it. The basic argument was that entering in the password had a testimonial aspect to it, and the government could never compel someone to take those steps in a way that would hurt him in a criminal case — in Boucher, by leading the police back to the evidence on the hard drive.

  In this post, I want to explain why I tend to disagree. It's my understanding that if the government already knows that Boucher has the password, having him enter it in generally does not implicate the Fifth Amendment privilege. Just to be extra clear, I'm not saying that I like the law this way, or that this is my personal theory of what the Fifth Amendment should mean. Rather, I'm saying that I think this is the correct result under existing caselaw. (So if you disagree, it's probably best to make your arguments in terms of cases, not Universal Principles of Justice.)

  The key precedent here is Fisher v. United States, 425 U.S. 391 (1976), in which the Supreme Court considered whether the government could subpoena records involving the preparation of a person's taxes by his accountant over a three year period from the suspect himself, who was suspected of tax fraud. The Court concluded that the Fifth Amendment did not bar such a subpoena, even though responding to the subpoena would indicate the person's knowledge and control of the records and even though the government wanted to use the records to prove his guilt for tax fraud. Here's why:
  Surely the Government is in no way relying on the "truthtelling" of the taxpayer to prove the existence of or his access to the documents. 8 Wigmore § 2264, p. 380. The existence and location of the papers are a foregone conclusion, and the taxpayer adds little or nothing to the sum total of the Government's information by conceding that he, in fact, has the papers. Under these circumstances, by enforcement of the summons, "no constitutional rights are touched. The question is not of testimony, but of surrender." In re Harris, 221 U. S. 274, 279 (1911).
  When an accused is required to submit a handwriting exemplar, he admits his ability to write and impliedly asserts that the exemplar is his writing. But in common experience, the first would be a near truism, and the latter self-evident. In any event, although the exemplar may be incriminating to the accused and although he is compelled to furnish it, his Fifth Amendment privilege is not violated, because nothing he has said or done is deemed to be sufficiently testimonial for purposes of the privilege.
  Under Fisher, courts have to make a judgment call about how much the testimonial component of the act of production will really add to the government's case. If the subpoena makes the target state some important fact that the government didn't know, then it's unconstitutional. See, e.g., United States v. Hubbell, 530 U.S. 27, 44-45 (2000), in which the government made the target collect his records, go through them, and identify which of the records revealed his crimes. On the other hand, if the subpoena makes the target testify about something that the government basically knows already, or is pretty unimportant, or could find out another way, then it's not unconstitutional. This is a fact-intensive test, requiring close attention to exactly what the government knows and what is relevant to their case.

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:
99 Comments