Court orders laptop owner to decrypt hard drive, finds no fifth amendment privilege

A federal judge in Colorado has ordered a woman under investigation for mortgage fraud to reveal her password to decrypt her laptop hard drive so investigators can search its contents. The United States District Court for the District of Colorado on January 23, 2012 issued an order directing a suspect in a criminal investigation to decrypt her laptop hard drive, which had been protected with PGP encryption that law enforcement couldn't break. The case is United States v. Fricosu, Case No. 1:10-CR-00509 (D. Colo. Jan. 23, 2012)

The court held that, because the Government knew that the laptop belonged to the Defendant and knew that it contained incriminating evidence, there was no Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The decision followed a similar holding in the Vermont case of In re Boucher, No. 2:06-MJ-91 (D. Vt. 2009).

Many laptop owners use encryption to protect the contents of their laptops in case they are lost or stolen. Open source software such as TrueCrypt and modern operating systems make the use of encryption easy and free.

Key to both courts' decisions was the acknowledgement by the person under investigation that the laptop belonged to them. Both courts relied heavily in their holdings that the suspects had no privilege against self-incrimination on the fact that investigators had already obtained admissions from the suspects that the laptops were theirs. If the suspects had not admitted the laptops belonged to them, the outcome might have been completely different, emphasizing the importance of always seeking legal advice from an experienced criminal defense attorney before speaking with police in any investigation.