Judge to Decide If Prosecutors Have the Right to Force Suspects to Decrypt Their Hard Drive

Say you’re sitting at home, alone, cruising the Internet. Suddenly, the front door is knocked down and federal agents come rushing in. The ransack your house looking for evidence against you, and take your computer with them. But say you’ve also purchased and installed on of those cool programs that allows you to encrypt everything on your computer so that no one else can see it unless you give them the password. Now, say that a prosecutor, or in this case, a federal judge orders you to give up your password so that investigators can look at your computer to find evidence that incriminates you. Is that legal? As of right now, no one knows, because it hasn’t been tried before a federal court before. But now, according to MainJustice, federal judge Robert Blackburn, is about to do just that.

The case went to court when federal agents raided the home of Ramona Fricosu, feeling they had sufficient evidence to prosecute her for mortgage fraud. Unfortunately, that evidence lays hidden away on the Toshiba laptop they took away from her house. Or at least, that’s what they think. They won’t know for sure unless they can get Fricosu to give up her password. After refusing, prosecutors turned to judge Blackburn, who is expected to give his ruling in a matter of days.

If Blackburn sides with prosecutors, as ABC News reports, Fricosu will have a choice, give up her password or face contempt of court charges which would allow prosecutors to jail her until she bends to their wishes. Of course it won’t end there. If Fricosu is jailed, her cause will likely be taken up by civil rights groups who will work to get the case reviewed by the Supreme Court. But that could take months, if not years. If Fricosu is not guilty, (or doesn’t have anything incriminating on her computer) she’ll no doubt give up her password rather than face jail time, paving the way for future judges to force other’s to give up their passwords. If she chooses to sit in jail, she’ll incriminate herself by that very action, but it might be worth it if she can keep jurors from seeing what she’s been up to. Mortgage fraud holds some pretty stiff penalties.

At this point in time, it appears, at least according to Wired Magazine, that the judge will order Ms. Fricosu to give up her password citing a previous case where a man with child pornography on his hard drive was forced to give up his. Of course in that case, there was a witness who claimed to have seen the incriminating evidence. In this case, there is not. Thus, it might just come down to how one judge sees the whole thing.

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