In a move that could impact the future of digital privacy rights in the US, the Florida Court of Appeals recently ruled that the government can force an iPhone user to release their passcode to unlock their phone.
In the case, State v. Stahl, Florida resident Aaron Stahl was charged with video voyeurism after allegedly taking pictures up the skirt of a woman in a store with his cell phone. The event was filmed on store surveillance video.
The police obtained a warrant to search Stahl's iPhone 5, which they believed was used to take the pictures. However, the State was unable to view the contents of the phone because it was locked, and Stahl refused to provide the password.
The Fifth Amendment states that "[n]o person...shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself[.]" Producing the password would be self-incriminatory for Stahl, the trial judge originally ruled.
The State then filed a motion to force Stahl to give up the password, and alleged that there was no Fifth Amendment implication in doing so, since "there was no difference between the court finding probable cause to issue the warrant and compelling Stahl to assist the State in 'opening up' the phone," according to Judge Anthony Black's decision.
Black ruled in favor of the State, overturning the trial court's decision and allowing the government to compel Stahl to provide the password. "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," Black's decision stated.
In other words, the Fifth Amendment does not protect the defendant from providing his password.
"This case is very significant," said Avivah Litan, an analyst at Gartner Research. "If consumers know they will eventually have to give up their personal phone passwords, they will be afraid to conduct personal activities on their phones that could ultimately expose activities they would rather keep private."
As ZDNet reported, this Florida ruling deviates from those in similar cases, including Pennsylvania and Colorado, which concluded that surrendering a password to law enforcement is considered self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment.
"This ruling of having to disclose personal passwords seems to represent a fundamental violation of privacy that could be exploited by aggressive law enforcement agents in the near future," Litan said. "Unfortunately, these agents don't always have the best motives, so it could lead to unfair arrests that violate the civil rights of US citizens."
The case comes on the heels of the controversy between Apple and the FBI, in which Apple refused a court order to unlock the iPhone used by the San Bernardino shooter. The Justice Department eventually dropped its case against Apple, as it unlocked the phone with help from an outside party.
In March, the American Civil Liberties Union found the government has 63 confirmed cases and up to 13 additional ones in which the government applied for an order "to compel Apple or Google to provide assistance in accessing data stored on a mobile device" since 2008. These cases primarily involved investigations into drug crimes, the group stated.
The technology privacy legislation issues continued in November, when the New York District Attorney released a report asking for legislation that would require smartphone manufacturers to create operating systems that allow them to more easily access user data—therefore making it easier for government organizations to access this data with search warrants, TechRepublic's Conner Forrest reported.
One potential area for concern is using these laws to exploit people based on their race, Litan said. "That's one of the dangers in these types of laws. They impose on fundamental privacy rights and civil liberties and can be dangerously abused by people in power," she said.
The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers
- The Florida Court of Appeals ruled earlier this month that the Fifth Amendment does not protect a smartphone user from being forced to give up their passcode, which could have major implications for digital privacy rights in the US.
- Similar cases recently arose in Pennsylvania and Colorado, both of which concluded that surrendering a password to law enforcement is considered self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment.
- With the recent controversy between Apple and the FBI, this ruling could impact the way other courts apply the Fifth Amendment in cases involving mobile devices.
Alison DeNisco Rayome has nothing to disclose. She does not hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.