It was the nation’s first appellate court to issue such a finding. And the outcome comes a day after a different federal appeals court refused to entertain an appeal from another defendant ordered by a lower federal court to decrypt a hard drive by month’s end.
Thursday’s decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that an encrypted hard drive is akin to a combination to a safe, and is off limits, because compelling the unlocking of either of them is the equivalent of forcing testimony.
The case at hand concerns an unidentified “Doe” defendant believed to be in possession of child pornography on 5 terabytes of data on several drives and laptops seized in a California motel with valid court warrants.
The Atlanta-based circuit held:
First, the decryption and production of the hard drives would require the use of the contents of Doe’s mind and could not be fairly characterized to a physical act that would be non-testimonial in nature. We conclude that the decryption and production would be tantamount to testimony by Doe of his knowledge of the existence and location of potentially incriminating files; of his possession, control and access to the encrypted portions of the drives; and of his capability to decrypt the files.
The court added: “Requiring Does to use a decryption password is most certainly more akin to requiring the production of a combination because both demand the use of the contents of the mind, and the production is accompanied by the implied factual statements noted above that could prove to be incriminatory.”
The defendant in April had refused to comport with a Florida federal grand jury’s orders that he decrypt the data, which was encrypted with TrueCrypt. A judge held him in contempt and jailed him until December 15, when the circuit court released him ahead of Thursday’s ruling.