As per the Fifth Amendment, a US citizen cannot be forced to surrender his private information such as passwords or login credentials. However, this new case has set a different precedent because a Florida Court of Appeals has ordered a male suspect to provide his phone’s passcode to the law enforcement. This is true that the court might have breached the self-incrimination right of the suspect which he is entitled to under the Fifth Amendment, but the court has its reasons for doing so.
The suspect Aaron Stahl was arrested after a woman filed a complaint with the police against him explaining that while she was shopping at a store, Stahl crouched down and slipped his lightened iPhone5 under her skirt. After being confronted by the woman, Stahl gave the excuse that his phone got dropped but he soon ran out of the store when she called for help. The police identified him through his car’s license plate number.
Stahl was arrested by the police for third-degree voyeurism. It must be noted that someone if charged with third-degree voyeurism can be compelled to expose information like the four-digit iPhone5 passcode in this case so that the cops could look for evidence.
Stahl initially agreed to let police search his mobile phone but then he denied telling the four-digit passcode of his iPhone5. Police obtained a search warrant for the mobile but they could not access the phone without the password for finding incriminating photos.
We know that without the passcode, even the phone’s manufacturer Apple Inc., cannot retrieve data because the encryption key is linked with the passcode. After ten failed attempts to unlock the phone, the mobile automatically locks itself and erases the data.
According to Judge Anthony Black of the Florida Court [Pdf]:
“Providing the passcode does not ‘betray any knowledge [Stahl] may have about the circumstances of the offenses’ for which he is charged. Thus, ‘compelling a suspect to make a nonfactual statement that facilitates the production of evidence’ for which the state has otherwise obtained a warrant based upon evidence independent of the accused’s statements linking the accused to the crime does not offend the privilege.”
“We question whether identifying the key which will open the strongbox – such that the key is surrendered – is, in fact, distinct from telling an officer the combination. More importantly, we question the continuing viability of any distinction as technology advances,” added Black in his note to the jury.
“Unquestionably, the State established, with reasonable particularity, its knowledge of the existence of the passcode, Stahl’s control or possession of the passcode, and the self-authenticating nature of the passcode. This is a case of surrender and not testimony,” said Black.
Last year, a federal judge went against the Justice Department and surprisingly sided with Apple Inc. The matter was related to forcing the iPhone maker firm to let investigators access data from a locked iPhone. This phone was seized during a drug investigation.