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Child Porn Suspect Held in Jail for 7 Months for refusing to Decrypt Hard Drives

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In Brief

A suspect of child pornography possession, Francis Rawls, who is a former Philadelphia Police Department sergeant, has been in solitary confinement without charges for last seven months and will remain until he complies with a court order forcing him to decrypt his password-protected hard drives seized in connection with a child pornography investigation.

Remember Ramona Fricosu? In 2012, a Colorado woman was ordered to unlock her laptop while investigating financial fraud, but she refused to unlock it saying that she did not remember the password.

Later the US Court ruled that Police can force defendants to decrypt their electronic devices, of course, as it does not violate the Fifth Amendment that prevents any citizen from having to incriminate themselves.

Forget the password? It might be a smart way to avoid complying with a court order, but not every time.

A Philadelphia man has been in jail for seven months and counting after being refused to comply with a court order forcing him to decrypt two password-protected hard drives, including a Macbook Pro and an iPhone 6, seized in connection with a child pornography investigation.

The suspect, Francis Rawls, who is a former Philadelphia Police Department sergeant, has yet not been charged with any child pornography crime because the required evidence is locked in his hard drives using Apple's FileVault encryption software.

Initially, a judge found the order compelling Rawls to unlock his encrypted devices is entirely unconstitutional, because of the fifth amendment right he invoked not to incriminate himself.

However, later federal investigators used the All Writs Act — the same old law the FBI invoked in the San Bernardino to compel Apple to unlock iPhone used by one of the terrorists — to unlock hard drives they believed contained photographs of child sex abuse.

The All Writs Act was meant to force telephone companies to aid in surveillance, and could also be invoked in forcing decryption of electronic devices as well.

Rawls failed to comply with the court order, as the passwords he entered in the initial days of the investigation didn't decrypt his hard drives, and was then taken into indefinite imprisonment by US Marshals on Sept. 30, 2015.

According to court documents [PDF], Rawls is suspected of possessing child pornography, but referring to a similar John Doe’s case, his defense outlines that Rawls has a clean record and doesn’t remember the passwords.

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