The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is a regularly used term among movies and TV shows, and is more popularly known as the Miranda rights to the general public. It basically protects the convicted from being forced to say or do anything which might end up as incriminating evidence against themselves. It also has other clauses like a person cannot be tried twice for the same offense. They can also not be denied of life, liberty and property without proper proceedings of law, and private property of the accused cannot be seized for public use without proper compensation. Now, you might be left wondering about the connection the Fifth Amendment has to technology. And thanks to a recent ruling, law has finally caught up to the recent advancements, being relevant in today's cases as well.
The ruling was proceeded by US District Judge Mark Kearny, and it seems now that smartphone passwords are protected by the Fifth Amendment of U.S. Constitution. This ruling is a significant interpretation of the law as it means if the user utilizes alphanumeric passwords to unlock the device, he is not legally bound to provide the password or unlock the device. The reason is that the device can contain incriminating evidence against the user. Surprisingly, this applies to both work and personal phones. Even though the work phone is a property of the company, the password is set by the user and is not in corporate records.
The case where the ruling occurred was between The Securities and Exchange Comission (SEC) and two persons called Bonan and Nan Huang, popularly known as the SEC v Huang case. The two were accused of insider trading, and they worked at credit card Company called Capital One as data analysts. The complaint accuses the two of using their job as data analysts to figure out sales trends at major US companies and trade stocks in the said companies ahead of announced earnings. According to SEC, they successfully retrieved an amount of $2.8 million from an investment of $150,000.
As part of the investigation, the defendants turned over their phones, but they refuse to disclose the passwords, citing Fifth Amendment. The SEC had asked for a court order to retrieve the passcodes, but in a new ruling, the court agreed with the defendants and denied the request. But not everyone agrees with the new ruling, as described in a report by the Washington Post, stating that the court had only asked for the passwords, and not to obtain information from their phones which could incriminate the defendants. But the argument stands that if the password of the two accused were to be same, it could be interpreted as companionship and used against the defendant. As to whether the ruling is appropriate in this particular scenario is yet to be seen, and the jury is still out.