Woman Says Disclosing Laptop Password Would Be Self-Incrimination


NPR has a story this week on a woman in Colorado whom the Justice Department is prosecuting for allegedly assisting in a mortgage scam and who refuses to hand over a password to her encrypted laptop.

Federal prosecutors say that requiring the woman to decrypt her laptop is like having her hand over a key to a safe, which is permissible under the U.S. Constitution. The woman’s lawyer says that forcing the woman to give prosecutors the password would be making her incriminate herself and is thus unconstitutional under the 5th Amendment.

In the broadcast, Robert Siegel is joined by Declan McCullagh, chief political correspondent for CNET, who says that there’s not currently any established law on the question of whether targets of prosecutions can be forced to decrypt their laptops.

According to McCullagh, the winner of the case will be the party that makes the best analogy:

And in this case, if you have encrypted files, is that like a safe? You can be compelled, according to Supreme Court precedent, to turn over the key to a safe. But you can’t be compelled to turn over the pass phrase or, that is, the combination to the safe. So what’s it more similar to? And this is what courts will wrestle with.

As Siegel and McCullagh discuss, prosecutors argue that if the court rules for the defendant in this case, police won’t be able to search anyone’s devices for child pornography or other cyber crimes because owners will simply encrypt their computers.

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