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Judge orders woman to give up password to hard drive

In the future, your hard drive may not be your hard drive: A federal judge has ruled that a Colorado woman, charged in a mortgage scam case, must turn over the password needed to decrypt her hard drive so that police can view the files on it.

Ramona Fricosu was given until Feb. 21 to comply with the order by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Blackburn. The judge said Fricosu's defense — the Fifth Amendment's right against self-incrimination — did not apply in the case, in which she is charged with bank fraud, wire fraud and money laundering.

"I find and conclude that the Fifth Amendment is not implicated by requiring production of the unencrypted contents of the Toshiba Satellite M305 laptop computer," the judge said in his ruling Tuesday, as reported by CNET.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties organization that filed an amicus brief on Fricosu's behalf, had argued that Fricosu should not be compelled to give up her password because it would violate her Fifth Amendment right, and there was no immunity "offered for loss of this protection."

In addition, the EFF said, the government had not specified what it was looking for on the Fricosu's laptop, making it seem like an "evidence-fishing trip."

But the U.S. Attorney's Office said in court documents that if Fricosuwasn't ordered to unlock her computer, it would result in a "concession to her and potential criminals (be it in child exploitation, national security, terrorism, financial crimes or drug trafficking cases) that encrypting all inculpatory digital evidence will serve to defeat the efforts of law enforcement officers to obtain such evidence through judicially authorized search warrants, and thus make their prosecution impossible.”

As CNET's Declan McCullagh wrote, "The question of whether a criminal defendant can be legally compelled to cough up his encryption passphrase remains an unsettled one, with law review articles for at least the last 15 years arguing the merits of either approach."

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