Man who refused to decrypt hard drives is free after four years in jail
Court holds that jail time to force decryption can't last more than 18 months.
TIMOTHY B. LEE - 2/12/2020, 9:43 PM
A Philadelphia man has been freed after a federal appeals court ruled that his continued detention was violating federal law. Francis Rawls, a former police officer, had been in jail since 2015, when a federal judge held him in contempt for failing to decrypt two hard drives taken from his home. The government believes they contain child pornography.
In 2015, law enforcement raided Rawls' home and seized two smartphones, a Mac laptop, and two hard drives. Prosecutors were able to gain access to the laptop, and police say forensic analysis showed Rawls downloading child pornography and saving it to the external hard drives. But the drives themselves were encrypted, preventing the police from accessing the downloaded files.
A judge ordered Rawls to decrypt the hard drives. In its recent ruling, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals described what happened next. Rawls "stated that he could not remember the passwords necessary to decrypt the hard drives and entered several incorrect passwords during the forensic examination."
The judge held Rawls in contempt and ordered him imprisoned. Rawls challenged his imprisonment, arguing that it violated his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. But in 2017, the 3rd Circuit rejected his argument.
The Fifth Amendment gives witnesses a right not to testify against themselves. Rawls argued that producing a password for the hard drives would amount to an admission that he owned the hard drives. But the 3rd Circuit rejected that argument. It held that the government already had ample evidence that Rawls owned the hard drives and knew the passwords required to decrypt them. So ordering Rawls to decrypt the drives wouldn't give the government any information it didn't already have. Of course, the contents of the hard drive might incriminate Rawls, but the contents of the hard drive are not considered testimony for Fifth Amendment purposes.
https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/202 ... s-in-jail/
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