It looks like the case that caused a Constitutional ruckus will be put to rest: government investigators have managed to decrypt Ramona Fricosu’s laptop computer, the one that was at the center of a Fifth Amendment debate. Many are reporting that the government managed to figure out the encryption key. I find this very hard to believe. The encryption key lies at the heart of data encryption software like AlertBoot, and is almost impossible to break. More than likely, they finally guessed the password.
Fricosu Case Recap
I covered the Fricosu case for the past six months. It first came to my attention in June of last year. At that point, the question was whether the government can force a person to decrypt a laptop’s contents. It turns out that the answer is no, as can be seen from this Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision that has no ties to the Fricosu case. However, there are exceptions. For example, when the existence of evidence is a foregone conclusion, it’s not a violation of the Fifth Amendment to force a suspect to decrypt the laptop. It’s the reason why a similar case in the past (“Boucher”) was also deemed as not violating the Fifth. In that particular case, however, the case was airtight when it came to the foregone conclusion doctrine: a government official had directly seen the evidence that was eventually encrypted.
Of course, just because a legal ruling was handed down doesn’t mean that it can be carried out. After Fricosu was ordered to provide a decrypted version, her lawyer claimed that she didn’t remember her password. This was, in my opinion, a much more interesting situation. How do you prove that she doesn’t remember the password?
Password was Provided?
According to theverge.com, Fricosu’s lawyer had this to say:
After ordering defendant Ramona Fricosu to decrypt her laptop to provide evidence in a fraud case, US federal authorities have successfully retrieved its contents without her help. Fricosu had previously argued that entering the key would count as testimony against herself, violating her Fifth Amendment rights, but was overruled by a Colorado judge. Now, Fricosu’s attorney says that authorities must have “must have used or found successful one of the passwords the co-defendant provided them,” rendering the ruling moot.
A moot point indeed (I’ve followed the source of the lawyer’s quote and it turns out to be from wired.com‘s “Threat Level”).
Of course, this makes much more sense than the government finally cracking the encryption key (as was reported, of all places, in theregister.co.uk). As I understand it, Fricosu’s laptop had been encrypted with PGP Desktop. Based on the time frame, I’d bet that its encryption strength was at least AES-128 or equivalent. Such encryption is pretty much impossible to crack in a short time frame. Heck, it’s hard to crack during a long time frame. To be honest, it’d probably take centuries, if not millennia, to crack it using current technology.
Instead of trying to figure out the encryption key, the smart ones attack the password: it’s almost always shorter than the key, and generally not random, making it much easier to crack.
Related Articles and Sites: