The debate over whether or not the Fifth Amendment--the right against self-incrimination-- protects the password to your smartphone had an important development this week during a ruling in an extortion case involving two social media celebrities and explicit photos.
On Wednesday, a judge in Miami ruled that two people accused of trying to extort thousands of dollars from Snapchat celebrity Julieanna Goddard by threatening to release explicit images of her must hand over the passwords to their phones used during the alleged crime. The passwords will be used in an attempt find evidence to prove the defendants sent messages to Goddard, known as "YesJulz" on social media, demanding $18,000 or else they would leak the images online, CNN reports.
The judge's ruling to compel the defendants, social media model Hencha Voigt, 29, and her former boyfriend, Wesley Victor, 34, to handover their smartphone passwords to investigators could have major repercussions across other cases.
In the evolving legal debate on the Fifth Amendment and smartphone passwords, one side believes that if a defendant is compelled to provide the passcode to their smartphone that is equivalent to forcing someone to provide potentially self-incriminating testimony. U.S. citizens have the right to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment. (The Fifth Amendment only applies to testimony and thoughts, not physical things like keys or biometric identifiers like fingerprints.)
The attorneys for the two suspects argue that the judge's order to handover the passwords should be considered testimony and therefore protected under the Constitution.
"They're asking for the passcode so they can keep on searching what's on the phone -- which may be incriminating my client -- and then use that against her," Kertch Conze, Voigt's attorney, told CNN.
Joshua J. Horowitz, an attorney specializing in tech issues, tells CNN that smartphone passwords and the Fifth Amendment is an important debate that is currently in a grey area.
"This is definitely a question that is percolating in the lower courts and will eventually make its way up to the Supreme Court," Horowitz tells CNN. "Until it does, there's really no clear answer on this issue."