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Philadelphia man jailed indefinitely for refusing to decrypt his hard drives

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David Kravets | ARS

A Philadelphia man suspected of possessing child pornography has been in jail for seven months and counting after being found in contempt of a court order demanding that he decrypt two password-protected hard drives.

The suspect, a former Philadelphia Police Department sergeant, has not been charged with any child porn crimes. Instead, he remains indefinitely imprisoned in Philadelphia's Federal Detention Center for refusing to unlock two drives encrypted with Apple's FileVault software in a case that once again highlights the extent to which the authorities are going to crack encrypted devices. The man is to remain jailed "until such time that he fully complies" with the decryption order.

The suspect's attorney, Federal Public Defender Keith Donoghue, urged a federal appeals court on Tuesday to release his client immediately, pending the outcome of appeals. "Not only is he presently being held without charges, but he has never in his life been charged with a crime," Donoghue wrote (PDF) in his brief to the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals.

The government successfully cited a 1789 law known as the All Writs Act to compel (PDF) the suspect to decrypt two hard drives it believes contain child pornography. The All Writs Act was the same law the Justice Department asserted in its legal battle with Apple, in which a magistrate ordered the gadget maker to write code to assist the authorities in unlocking the iPhone used by one of two shooters who killed 14 people at a San Bernardino County government building in December. The authorities dropped that case after they paid a reported $1 million for a hack.

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