Does Forcing Suspect to Open Computer Files Violate Right Against Self-Incrimination?


Online child pornography users rarely escape conviction once investigators armed with a search warrant seize their computer equipment. When federal agents raided a West Allis, Wi., apartment, they ran into an increasingly common problem – encrypted data, says the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Their standoff with a computer scientist has led to a rare court ruling about Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in the digital world. Agents had traced possible child porn to the home of Jeffrey Feldman, a software developer. In January, under a search warrant, they took his computer and more than a dozen external hard drives with nearly 20 terabytes of storage capacity. Feldman’s drives were encrypted so well that they stumped even the FBI’s top forensic computer experts for weeks. A prosecutor asked a judge to order Feldman to unlock the drives. A magistrate judge said it was “a close call,” but Feldman’s simple act of decrypting the files would amount to telling the government something it doesn’t know for sure yet, and would violate Feldman’s rights against self incrimination under the Fifth Amendment.

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