‘Sorry, I’ve Forgotten My Decryption Password’ is Contempt of Court, Pal

Claiming you can’t remember your passphrase to unlock data is willful defiance.

The US Third Circuit Court of Appeals today upheld a lower court ruling of contempt against a chap who claimed he couldn’t remember the password to decrypt his computer’s hard drives.

In so doing, the appeals court opted not to address a lower court’s rejection of the defendant’s argument that being forced to reveal his password violated his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

In the case under review, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held the defendant (referred to in court documents as “John Doe” because his case is partially under seal) in contempt of court for willfully disobeying and resisting an order to decrypt external hard drives that had been attached to his Mac Pro computer.

The defendant’s computer, two external hard drives, an iPhone 5S, and an iPhone 6 Plus had been seized as part of a child pornography investigation.

“Doe voluntarily provided the password for the Apple iPhone 5S, but refused to provide the passwords to decrypt the Apple Mac Pro computer or the external hard drives,” the appeals court ruling states. “Despite Doe’s refusal, forensic analysts discovered the password to decrypt the Mac Pro Computer, but could not decrypt the external hard drives.”

Forensic examination of the computer indicated that the device had been used to visit known child exploitation sites and to download thousands of files with the same hash values as known child pornography files.

The files themselves, however, were not present on the computer. They are assumed to be stored on the external hard drives.

Thomas Claburn

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