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Child porn suspect doesn't have to decrypt seized hard drives -- for now

Jaikumar Vijayan | June 6, 2013
A Wisconsin man ordered last month by a magistrate to decrypt several of his storage drives to let investigators inspect them for evidence of child porn this week won a last minute reprieve from a federal judge.

A Wisconsin man ordered last month by a magistrate to decrypt several of his storage drives to let investigators inspect them for evidence of child porn this week won a last minute reprieve from a federal judge.

Judge Rudolph Randa of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin Tuesday vacated the compelled disclosure order against Jeffrey Feldman, a senior software development engineer at Rockwell Automation, who is under investigation for suspected possession of child pornography.

Judge Randa's order came after Feldman's attorney, Robin Shellow, filed an emergency motion seeking additional time to argue her client's case.

Late last month, Magistrate Judge William Callahan of the same federal court had given Feldman until Monday to decrypt the drives drives or be held in contempt.

Shellow argued that the magistrate judge had no authority to force decryption or to hold Feldman in contempt for refusing to do so. Shellow also maintained that Callahan's ruling was unfair because it was based only on input from prosecutors.

The case touches upon the important issue of the Fifth Amendment rights that allows for protection against self-incrimination.

Federal agents seized 16 storage devices from Feldman's residence in January, but couldn't inspect them because the contents are encrypted.

Investigators earlier this year moved to seek the court's help in forcing Feldman to decrypt the drives.

Callahan first ruled in April that compelling Feldman to decrypt the devices would be tantamount to forcing him to admit he had control over the drives, and thus was aware of the contents. Such forced disclosure would violate Feldman's right against self-incrimination, Callahan ruled at the time.

Callahan reversed the ruling a few weeks later after the government filed a motion stating that a small portion of Feldman's drives were successfully encrypted. The partially decrypted devices revealed many files that appeared to contain incriminating images, investigators said in the filing for reconsideration.

The partially decrypted drive also revealed several files containing detailed financial records and images of Feldman.

The government argued, and Callahan agreed at that time, that the little information gathered from the drives showed that Feldman had knowledge of and control over the information in them. He ruled that Feldman would not be incriminating himself by decrypting the drives because he would only be providing access to information the government already knew existed.

Judge Randa's order on Tuesday gives Feldman until July 17 to submit a brief in his defense. The government will have until Aug. 14 to respond.

Shellow told Computerworld on Wednesday that it's unclear yet whether Judge Randa is seeking clarification on Feldman's Fifth Amendment arguments or on the previous magistrate judge's authority to issue the May order.

 

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