Francis Rawls has already spent 17 months in US jail and will stay there indefinitely unless he provides passwords to unlock his encrypted hard drives. A former Philadelphia police officer has so far refused to do so, citing the 5th amendment, which protects him from self-incrimination.
His case is of interest for civil liberties campaigners, who claim that citizens should have the right to protect their private data and to be protected from self-incrimination. The problem is that the suspected nature of the encrypted content on the hard drives leads to an ethical quandary: the drives are believed to contain images of child sexual abuse. This mean that organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) must defend a suspected pedophile if they want to stand up for the rights of citizens across the United States.
The case was filed in 2015, when the Rawls’ home was searched after the police investigated his online activity. As a result, 2 iPhones, an Apple Mac Pro and 2 external hard drives were seized, and a warrant was received to examine their contents. However, the suspect refused to give up the passwords required to decrypt the hard drives, which were encrypted with Apple’s FileVault software.
This fact didn’t stop digital forensics experts from finding incriminating content – for example, they found logs showing that the device had been used to visit websites with titles referring to child exploitation. Besides, it was also found that the suspect had downloaded thousands of files known to be child abuse images judging by their “hash” values. However, the files themselves couldn’t be accessed. The case is built on the evidence provided by the suspect’s sister, who told police that she had seen many images of child sexual abuse on the hard drives.
A court issued a decryption order 17 months ago, compelling Rawls to unlock the encrypted devices, but he also unlocked one of the iPhones and claimed he could not remember the passwords to the encrypted hard drives. However, the court rejected this assertion, because his sister said she had seen him enter his passwords from memory. As such, the man remains imprisoned without charges in Philadelphia’s federal detention center until he complies with the court order. The experts in the field admit that in theory, he could be held in jail forever – until he’s dead.