What decryption orders mean for the Fifth Amendment

A federal judge in Colorado recently handed down a ruling that forced a defendant to decrypt her laptop hard-drive, despite the Fifth Amendment's stricture against compelling people to testify against themselves. The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Marcia Hoffman has commentary on the disappointing ruling:

In the order issued yesterday, the court dodged the question of whether requiring Fricosu to type a passphrase into the laptop would violate the Fifth Amendment. Instead, it ordered Fricosu to turn over a decrypted version of the information on the computer. While the court didn't hold that Fricosu has a valid Fifth Amendment privilege not to reveal that data, it seemed to implicitly recognize that possibiity. The court both points out that the government offered Fricosu immunity for the act of production and forbids the government from using the act of production against her. We think Fricosu not only has a valid privilege against self-incrimination, but that the immunity offered by the government isn't broad enough to invalidate it. Under Supreme Court precedent, the government can't use the act of production or any evidence it learns as a result of that act against Fricosu.

The court then found that the Fifth Amendment "is not implicated" by requiring Fricosu to turn over the decrypted contents of the laptop, since the government independently learned facts suggesting that Fricosu had possession and control over the computer. Furthermore, according to the court, "there is little question here but that the government knows of the existence and location of the computer's files. The fact that it does not know the specific content of any specific documents is not a barrier to production." We disagree with this conclusion, too. Neither the government nor the court can say what files the government expects to find on the laptop, so there is testimonial value in revealing the existence, authenticity and control over that specific data. If Fricosu decrypts the data, the government could learn a great deal it didn't know before.

In sum, we think the court got it wrong.

Disappointing Ruling in Compelled Laptop Decryption Case