SAN FRANCISCO: In a landmark decision this week in San Francisco, a Federal Court ruled that forced decryption of data is unconstitutional in the United States under the Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination.
The defendant tried and failed to invoke the Fifth Amendment when a US Grand Jury ordered him to provide his Truecrypt password — the judge held him in contempt and sent him to jail. But in this recent ruling, United States vs. John Doe, the appelate court ruled he was well within his rights to keep his encrypted data private.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a privacy watchdog group, called the ruling “a major victory for constitutional rights in the digital age.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed an amicus brief under seal, arguing that the man had a valid Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, and that the government’s attempt to force him to decrypt the data was unconstitutional. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that the act of decrypting data is testimonial and therefore protected by the Fifth Amendment. Furthermore, the government’s limited offer of immunity in this case was insufficient to protect his constitutional right, because it did not extend to the government’s use of the decrypted data as evidence against him in a prosecution.
The government’s attempt to force this man to decrypt his data put him in the Catch-22 the 5th Amendment was designed to prevent – having to choose between self-incrimination or risking contempt of court,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann on the EFF site. “We’re pleased the appeals court recognized the important constitutional issues at stake here, and we hope this ruling will discourage the government from using abusive grand jury subpoenas to try to expose data people choose to protect with encryption.”
Read the court’s decision below: