Feds want to keep child porn suspect locked up indefinitely until he decrypts his hard drive

Feds want to keep child porn suspect locked up indefinitely until he decrypts his hard drive

By Ryan Whitwam May. 18, 2016

Feds want to keep child porn suspect locked up indefinitely until he decrypts his hard drive

Federal prosecutors this week asked the federal appeals court to keep a suspect locked up indefinitely until he complies with a court order to decrypt his hard drives. Suspect Francis Rawls was arrested seven months ago on suspicion of possessing child pornography, but law enforcement has thus far been unable to access his data. Maybe they never will, and then what?

The suspect was a Philadelphia police sergeant, but was relieved of duty. He hasn’t technically been charged (let alone convicted) of child porn-related crimes yet. According to authorities, it’s a “foregone conclusion” that the suspect’s encrypted hard drives contain child porn. They base this on testimony from family members who saw some of the content, as well as the presence of a virtual machine on his Mac Pro.

The VM environment is certainly incriminating enough that no one is going to leap to this man’s defense. The system was found to be running Freenet, the software authorities allege was used to obtain the illicit content. Log files also contain search terms that are commonly used to search for and categorize child porn. The actual files that would likely put Francis Rawls away for many years following a trial were nowhere to be found, though.

That brings us to the hard drives. Prosecutors say the suspect’s external hard drives could contain 20,000 illegal files. However, they’ve been encrypted with Apple FileVault. Rawls claims to have forgotten the password, but the government cited the All Writs Act when it won the contempt of court order that landed him in prison months ago. That’s the same 1789 statute used by the FBI in an attempt to compel Apple to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. The prosecutors also state that forcing the suspect to provide the passwords would not be a violation of his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Why? They’re really, really sure the files are there.

The judge could rule on the prosecution’s request at any time in the coming months. That could keep Rawls in federal custody until he coughs up the password or his lawyer is able to convince the court to lift the order. Considering the nature of the case, that might be a very long time.

Leave a Reply