Malone: You wanna know how you do it? Here's how, they pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way, and that's how you get Capone! Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that*
If you remember the movie you'll remember that the main character in the movie, Ness, needed the bookkeeper alive so he could decrypt Al Capone's ledger. But what happens if the bookkeeper refuses to decrypt the ledger on the grounds that by decrypting it he is admitting his role in a criminal enterprise. Well then Al Capone wins.
I personally don't want sexual deviants and terrorists walking round free but I simply cannot see how the government can compel someone to decrypt evidence that implicates the person in the crime they are being accused of committing. The very act of decrypting the evidence proves that you had possession of the evidence and knowledge of its existence.
The Colorado prosecution of a woman accused of a mortgage scam will test whether the government can punish you for refusing to disclose your encryption passphrase.
The Obama administration has asked a federal judge to order the defendant, Ramona Fricosu, to decrypt an encrypted laptop that police found in her bedroom during a raid of her home.
Because Fricosu has opposed the proposal, this could turn into a precedent-setting case. No U.S. appeals court appears to have ruled on whether such an order would be legal or not under the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment, which broadly protects Americans' right to remain silent.
In a brief filed last Friday, Fricosu's Colorado Springs-based attorney, Philip Dubois, said defendants can't be constitutionally obligated to help the government interpret their files. "If agents execute a search warrant and find, say, a diary handwritten in code, could the target be compelled to decode, i.e., decrypt, the diary?"
To the U.S. Justice Department, though, the requested court order represents a simple extension of prosecutors' long-standing ability to assemble information that could become evidence during a trial. The department claims:Public interests will be harmed absent requiring defendants to make available unencrypted contents in circumstances like these. Failing to compel Ms. Fricosu amounts to a concession to her and potential criminals (be it in child exploitation, national security, terrorism, financial crimes or drug trafficking cases) that encrypting all inculpatory digital evidence will serve to defeat the efforts of law enforcement officers to obtain such evidence through judicially authorized search warrants, and thus make their prosecution impossible.Prosecutors stressed that they don't actually require the passphrase itself, meaning Fricosu would be permitted to type it in and unlock the files without anyone looking over her shoulder. They say they want only the decrypted data and are not demanding "the password to the drive, either orally or in written form."
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 at least the last 15 years 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.")
* Untouchables - If you don't know the movie you live a seriously deprived life.