The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Thursday that a suspect can be forced to decrypt their computer, stating that it would not be self-incrimination.
In a 5-2 decision, the court ruled that the state had the right to force the suspect to give up their encryption key.
The case ruled upon involves Massachusetts attorney Leon Gelfgatt. Gelfgatt was allegedly involved in mortgage fraud in 2009, faking mortgage documents to scam companies for over $13 million. He had four computers encrypted with “DriveCrypt Plus” software, which he refused to decrypt for police.
Massachusetts State Police believed evidence of the defendant’s purported criminal activities was located on the computers. Gelfgatt told an officer, “[e]verything is encrypted and no one is going to get to it.” Because he was in communication with Russians, and apparently “[that] is how Russians do business.” The court ruled that it was a foregone conclusion what was on the computers, as Gelfgatt admitted to their contents, which allowed police to order him to decrypt the computers.
Maria Hoffman, an attorney with experience in digital law, disagrees with the ruling, telling Ars Technica, “The police think they’re going to find mortgage fraud, but they don’t know what they’re going to find, and they don’t know where that supposed evidence is,” Law professor Fred Cate of Indiana University told Ars, “It’s only likely effect is to encourage future defendants to be less forthcoming with police.”
The decision is significant because other courts had previously ruled against forced decryption, stating it would be self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment. In one such case last year, Federal Judge William E. Calhoun ruled that a child pornography suspect would not be forced to decrypt multiple hard drives because it would be self-incrimination.
This ruling only applies to Massachusetts and crimes tried in its state courts. It is expected that this issue will eventually stand before the Supreme Court. The Court has been favorable to protecting Fifth Amendment rights recently, as seen in their most recent rulings.