US judge orders woman to decrypt laptop or face contempt of court

In a case that could set a legal precedent, a Federal US judge has ruled today on a long standing case that the defendant Ramona Fricosu, involved in a multimillion bank fraud, must decrypt her Toshiba laptop hard drive of face contempt of court, the woman had argued that exposing the laptop contents to law enforcement by entering her password would violate the Fifth Amendment, right not to self-incriminate, the judge ruling in a 10 page verdict says that the defendant isn’t protected because the  1789 All Writs Act  has been used to require telephone companies to aid in surveillance and can be invoked in forcing decryption of hard drives as well.

Her solicitor, Phil Dubois, has asked for a stay of execution so that they can appeal and has announced that his client may not be able to decrypt the laptop for any number of reasons although the defendant was recorded in a jailhouse conversation with her ex-husband admitting to having access to the laptop and it will be hard to claim that she doesn’t know the password.


It looks like the US could become a country like the United Kingdom where refusing to reveal your password to the authorities is already a criminal offence, but while UK laws sets a maximum prison sentence of 2 years (5 years if the case is related to terrorism), in the US people could be held in contempt of court which means an indefinite prison sentence.

This is not the end of it yet as hopefully the appeal will be granted and could overturn this verdict, once the legal fight has exhausted all possible recourse, US law should soon be clear about if citizens have the right to refuse to reveal the password to their encrypted files or not, at the moment is best to be cautious and assume that sticking a finger up the cops and saying that you won’t reveal the password might not work as expected.

Note: According to an article in Popular Science, the defendant was using Symantec PGP Desktop full disk encryption.

UPDATE March 2012: According to an article in Wired, the FBI has now decrypted the disk, they did not disclosure how they did it but the woman’s solicitors points out that possibly the co-defendant has given the password to the police.

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