Can you be compelled by law enforcement to give up your password?

Police search suspect for weapons at station one

This is a good question in our modern era: can the government force you to give up your password to your laptop, iPhone or other electronic device? As with so many other aspects of our society there is a balance between privacy and security. It would be great if laws could be written to only require the “bad guys” to give up their passwords.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is asking a federal court to protect us from revealing our passwords or somehow unlocking our devices for authorities to peruse. Their argument is this is a violation of 5th Amendment rights as the person is being asked to unlock her data and thereby incriminate herself. However, unlocking a diary isn’t protected so I suspect they are going to eventually lose this case.

In another set of cases the EFF is working on, they are determining the rights protecting your mobile phone from searches without a warrant . In this area, they seem to be losing ground and it appears that your mobile phone’s data is subject to search by the police without a warrant.

The combination of these two cases really scares me. Could I be required to remove the password from my iPhone and the data within it during a regular stop by the police? An interesting question and it seems like the answer will soon be yes. I don’t like that and I’ve always advise clients to think about what their digital debris says about them and others.

Incidentally, this is one reason we never keep customer passwords. This way we can never be compelled to reveal such information (and yes I have gotten more than one request by law enforcement to do so). While wi-fi passwords can easily be circumvented, smart detectives know that people use passwords for more than one thing, so getting your wifi password could be the key to unlocking the rest of your digital life.

Food for thought.

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