A Miami judge ruled Wednesday that a reality TV actress accused of “sextortion” must give up her iPhone password to police.
The case pits privacy advocates against law enforcement as some believe refusing to unlock a phone is protected by the Fifth Amendment (part of which is the right to not incriminate oneself), while others say it is more comparable to a warrant forcing someone to hand over a physical key to a lock box.
Hencha Voigt allegedly stole and released sex videos from a phone owned by a local socialite nicknamed YesJulz. Voigt stars in WAGS Miami, a reality show that chronicles the personal lives of wives and girlfriends of sportspersons (which the acronym comes from).
Prosecutors say Voigt and co-defendant Wesley Victor threatened to disseminate salacious videos stolen from their client’s mobile device if she didn’t pay them $18,000, according to the Miami Herald. Investigators want access to Voigt’s iPhone and Victor’s Blackberry because there could be further evidence to help solve the case.
“For me, this is like turning over a key to a safety deposit box,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Charles Johnson told the Miami Herald.
YesJulz, formally known as Julieanne Goddard and reportedly dubbed the “Queen of Snapchat,” is somewhat famous for her social media posts and promoting parties. She applauded the judge’s decision, but not without appreciating the constitutional questions.
“We need to examine the laws and find a way to adjust to the digital age without compromising our rights as citizens,” YesJulz told the Miami Herald. “In my opinion, in this particular case, it made sense for the court to rule for her to unlock the phone.”
If Voigt or Victor refuse to unlock their cellphones than they could be arrested for contempt of court. Both are charged with extortion, conspiracy to extort, and the unlawful use of a phone, reports the Miami Herald.
The legal dispute is similar to other contested situations in recent months and years.
California police raided a home in May of 2016 and demanded that everyone in the residence user their fingers to unlock a mobile device.
“While the government does not know ahead of time the identity of every digital device or fingerprint (or indeed, every other piece of evidence) that it will find in the search,” the memorandum reads, “it has demonstrated probable cause that evidence may exist at the search location, and needs the ability to gain access to those devices and maintain that access to search them.”
The authorities acquired a warrant, but some legal experts argue the language was too broad and didn’t explicitly state what exactly was needed for the investigation.
“They want the ability to get a warrant on the assumption that they will learn more after they have a warrant,” Marina Medvin of Medvin Law told Forbes. Essentially, law enforcement is using the warrant to force people, who are not yet deemed suspects, to comply, says Medvin.
The FBI asked Apple to unlock the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the perpetrators in the San Bernardino terrorist attacks, during the followup investigations. While the agency was not specifically demanding fingerprints in this situation, it was trying to unlock the phone through legally and technologically irresolute means.
Apple CEO Tim Cook argued in a letter to customers that trying to design software for a back door is “too dangerous to create.”
“The FBI may use different words to describe this tool, but make no mistake: Building a version of iOS [Apple’s operating system] that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control,” Cook continued. (RELATED: Turkey Is Reportedly Asking Apple’s Help In Unlocking iPhone Of Russian Ambassador’s Killer)
A former Philadelphia police officer has been detained for more than a year because he refused a judge’s order to unlock hard drives believed to contain child pornography. The government said he will remain in jail indefinitely until he agrees to comply with their orders, according to Ars Technica.
Whether refraining to give up a virtual key is considered a right under the fifth amendment or a disregard of an official warrant seems to be part of a legally gray area. Americans are divided on the issue. Forty-six percent of people believe that the government should be able to access communications that are encrypted — converted into complex code thereby making it virtually inaccessible — when investigating crimes, according to a Pew Research Center study. On the contrary, 44 percent of people said that tech companies should be able to install and employ encryption mechanisms that are effectively impervious to law enforcement.
The U.S. Supreme Court will likely have to settle this discrepancy in the near future.
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