Tag Archives: search and seizure

The Fourth Amendment and Encrypted Documents

I stumbled across this story recently about an Arizona man who encrypted his hard drive before the police seized it for allegedly containing child pornography.

Law enforcement suspected the defendant of sharing child-porn images and video on the internet in 2011. Tipped off by Child Protective Services (a state agency) law enforcement started investigating his online behavior for allegedly sharing child pornography.  Fast-forward nearly into the investigation, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Organization took the suspect into custody because they linked him to 70 photos and videos of child pornography on the internet.  He is charged with 10 counts sexual exploitation of a minor.

Looking for additional evidence law enforcement seized the suspect’s computer and tried to recover anything that may relate to their investigation.  The problem is the hard drive was completely encrypted using the super-strong True Crypt software.  So far law enforcement has not been able to breach the encryption.  It is likely the prosecutor has more than enough hard evidence against the defendant without the unencrypted contents of the hard drive.

The use of encryption is something the general public is starting to embrace.  With the revelations that governments around the world, primarily the National Security Agency (NSA), are spying on anyone and everyone, users of technology are starting to become more privacy conscious.  However it still unclear how the encrypted files will impact the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.  With the case of encryption, the government has successfully seized the item, but is not able to see the contents.

Perhaps the litmus test for how encryption will be handled in the future lies with how the Lavabit case is decided.