Alleged fraudster has until next week to decrypt her hard drive for prosecutors

Graham Cluley
Graham Cluley
@[email protected]

Combination lock with padlockProsecutors are keen to discover what is on the encrypted laptop of Ramona Fricosu, a Colorado woman accused of committing financial fraud.

The case has raised interesting questions of whether you can be forced by law to hand over your password, or decrypt your computer.

Fricosu has certainly managed to rally some supporters, including civil rights groups such as the EFF which argued that if she was forced to decrypt her drive or hand over its contents, it would be a violation of Fifth Amendment privileges against self-incrimination.

EFF webpage

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Now, according to an Associated Press report, a federal court has denied Fricosu’s appeal.

Ramona Fricosu has until Monday to make available an unencrypted version of her hard drive (subtly different from revealing or handing over a password – which could itself be incriminating, or could have been reused in other places).

The Associated Press press describes how the data handover would occur:

In a procedure agreed upon by [Fricosu's attorney] and federal prosecutors, federal agents would meet Fricosu at a designated place with the laptop, which was seized during a search warrant. Then, the government will either look away or go to another room while Fricosu enters a password on her laptop and hands it back to agents so the hard drive can be copied.

What makes the demand for access to Fricosu’s PGP Desktop-encrypted laptop particularly troubling is whether prosecutors have provided reasonable suspicion that evidence is hidden in the encrypted content.

If they haven’t – then it could begin to sound like evidence-fishing trips are being sanctioned, something which would make those who care about civil liberties very nervous.

It’s perhaps not surprising that there have already been suggestions that Fricosu may not have set up the encryption on her laptop herself, or that she might have forgotten the password.

If that’s the case, then this fascinating case will surely take another twist..

Combination lock with padlock image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Graham Cluley is an award-winning keynote speaker who has given presentations around the world about cybersecurity, hackers, and online privacy. A veteran of the computer security industry since the early 1990s, he wrote the first ever version of Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit for Windows, makes regular media appearances, and is the co-host of the popular "Smashing Security" podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Mastodon, Threads, Bluesky, or drop him an email.

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