Saturday, December 15, 2007

Court upholds using the Fifth Amendment to refuse to disclose your password

The U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont has held that you can invoke the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and refuse to give up the password you have used to encrypt data files.

Here are the essential facts in United States v. Boucher, 2007 WL 4246473 (November 29, 2007):

On December 17, 2006, defendant Sebastien Boucher was arrested on a complaint charging him with transportation of child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(1). At the time of his arrest government agents seized from him a laptop
computer containing child pornography. The government has now determined that the relevant files are encrypted, password-protected, and inaccessible. The grand jury has subpoenaed Boucher to enter a password to allow access to the files on the computer. Boucher has moved to quash the subpoena on the grounds that it violates his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The district court held that Boucher could invoke the Fifth Amendment and refuse to comply.

I did an earlier post about this general issue and, as I explained there, in order to claim the Fifth Amendment privilege the government must be (i) compelling you (ii) to give testimony that (iii) incriminates you. All three of these requirements have to be met or you cannot claim the Fifth Amendment privilege. (And if you voluntarily comply by giving up your password, you can’t try to invoke the privilege later because a court will say that you were not compelled to do so – you did so voluntarily.)

In the earlier post or two I did on this issue, I was analyzing a scenario, which has come up in a few instance (though not in any reported cases I’m familiar with) in which someone is stopped by Customs officers while entering or leaving the U.S. In my scenario, which is the kind of circumstance I’ve heard about, the officers check the person’s laptop, find it’s encrypted and demand the password. The question then becomes whether the laptop’s owner can (i) invoke the Fifth Amendment privilege or (ii) invoke Miranda. As I’ve written before, to invoke Miranda you have to be in custody, and you arguably are not here. And to be “compelled” under the Fifth Amendment, you have to be commanded to so something by judicial process or some analogous type of official coercion (like losing your job); you probably (?) don’t have that here, either.

But in the Boucher case, he had been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury which was ordering him to give up the password, so he was being compelled to do so.

As to the second and third requirements, the district court held that giving up the password was a testimonial, incriminating act:
Compelling Boucher to enter the password forces him to produce evidence that
could be used to incriminate him. Producing the password, as if it were a key to a locked container, forces Boucher to produce the contents of his laptop. . . .

Entering a password into the computer implicitly communicates facts. By entering
the password Boucher would be disclosing the fact that he knows the password and has control over the files on drive Z. The procedure is equivalent to asking Boucher, `Do you know the password to the laptop?’ . . .

The Supreme Court has held some acts of production are unprivileged such as
providing fingerprints, blood samples, or voice recordings. Production of such
evidence gives no indication of a person's thoughts . . . because it is undeniable that a person possesses his own fingerprints, blood, and voice. Unlike the unprivileged production of such samples, it is not without question that Boucher possesses the password or has access to the files.

In distinguishing testimonial from non-testimonial acts, the Supreme Court has
compared revealing the combination to a wall safe to surrendering the key to a strongbox. The combination conveys the contents of one's mind; the key does not and is therefore not testimonial. A password, like a combination, is in the suspect's mind, and is therefore testimonial and beyond the reach of the grand jury subpoena.
United States v. Boucher, supra.

The government tried to get around the testimonial issue by offering “to restrict the entering of the password so that no one views or records the password.” The court didn’t buy this alternative:
While this would prevent the government from knowing what the password is, it would not change the testimonial significance of the act of entering the password. Boucher would still be implicitly indicating that he knows the password and that he has access to the files. The contents of Boucher's mind would still be displayed, and therefore the testimonial nature does not change merely because no one else will discover the password.
United States v. Boucher, supra.

So Boucher wins and the court quashes the subpoena, which means it becomes null and void and cannot be enforced.

I applaud the court’s decision. I’ve argued for this outcome in chapters I’ve written for a couple of books and in some short articles (and in discussions with my students). I think this is absolutely the correct result, but I strongly suspect the government will appeal the decision. Let’s hope the appellate court goes along with this court.

There is, again, a caveat: Remember that Boucher had been served with a grand jury subpoena so there was no doubt he was being compelled to give up the password. The airport scenario is much more difficult, because compulsion is not as obvious. We won’t know whether anyone can take the Fifth Amendment in that context unless and until someone refuses to provide their password to Customs officers and winds up litigating that issue in court.


Emily said...

I'm a little late finding this post, but thank you for sharing your knowledge and thoughts on this issue! It is quite interesting.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Is there precedent that clearly defines metadata in general as testimonial?

Susan Brenner said...

No . . . issues like this are just beginning to crop up/

Michael said...

Great post, I think I am going to subscribe to this blog as your other posts are great too.

What if there is proof that Boucher knows the password, then would it be considered undeniable that he possess it and therefore is unprivileged? How solid would that proof need to be, I suppose he could have always forgotten it in the last hour.

yili360 said...

Is there precedent that clearly defines metadata in general as testimonial?

Windows 7 password recovery:

Susan Brenner said...

for yiii360,

There's at least one case that holds the act of producing it isn't, as I explained in this blog post:

The case referred to in the post now has a Westlaw cite: 2010 WL 1423103

That's all I found, so far . . . ?