The Lazy Genius

Security News & Brain Dumps from Xavier Ashe, a Bit9 Client Partner

Judge: Man can’t be forced to divulge encryption passphrase

Posted by Xavier Ashe on September 8, 2008

A federal judge in Vermont has ruled that prosecutors can’t force a criminal defendant accused of having illegal images on his hard drive to divulge his PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) passphrase.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerome Niedermeier ruled that a man charged with transporting child pornography on his laptop across the Canadian border has a Fifth Amendment right not to turn over the passphrase to prosecutors. The Fifth Amendment protects the right to avoid self-incrimination.

Niedermeier tossed out a grand jury’s subpoena that directed Sebastien Boucher to provide “any passwords” used with his Alienware laptop. “Compelling Boucher to enter the password forces him to produce evidence that could be used to incriminate him,” the judge wrote in an order dated November 29 that went unnoticed until this week. “Producing the password, as if it were a key to a locked container, forces Boucher to produce the contents of his laptop.”

Especially if this ruling is appealed, U.S. v. Boucher could become a landmark case. The question of whether a criminal defendant can be legally compelled to cough up his encryption passphrase remains an unsettled one, with law review articles for the last decade arguing the merits of either approach. (A U.S. Justice Department attorney wrote an article in 1996, for instance, titled “Compelled Production of Plaintext and Keys.”)

Read the full article on C|Net News.

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