Does encryption imply expectation of privacy?

Recently Chris Webster, a law student at the University of Maryland Baltimore School of Law, started this email thread which I will present here with minimal editing in hopes that some experts or interested parties among you, dear readers, can chime in. Just so everyone is clear, a disclaimer: I’m fascinated by e-discovery and legal issues surrounding security and privacy and blog about these subjects fairly often. I’m not, however, an expert in this area. And I’m certainly not a lawyer. Having said that, let’s begin.

This article from the Wall Street Journal Law Blog Newsletter about an opinion Re United States, – F.Supp.2d -, 2009 WL 3416240 (D.Or. 2009) handed down by District Judge Mosman earlier this year is what started the exchange.

Here’s a question: Is it kosher for a law enforcement agency to, pursuant to a lawfully granted search warrant, search your Gmail account without telling you? According to [District Judge Mosman] the answer is yes.

The Fourth Amendment protects our homes from unreasonable searches and seizures, requiring that, absent special circumstances, the government obtain a search warrant based on probable cause before entering. . . . This is strong privacy protection for homes and the items within them in the physical world.

When a person uses the Internet, however, the user’s actions are no longer in his or her physical home; in fact he or she is not truly acting in private space at all. The user is generally accessing the Internet with a network account and computer storage owned by an ISP like Comcast or NetZero. All materials stored online, whether they are e-mails or remotely stored documents, are physically stored on servers owned by an ISP. When we send an e-mail or instant message from the comfort of our own homes to a friend across town the message travels from our computer to computers owned by a third party, the ISP, before being delivered to the intended recipient. Thus, “private” information is actually being held by third-party private companies.

It is clear that notice is an essential part of the reasonableness calculus in judging searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. The Federal Public Defender has argued that this constitutional notice requirement supports [the view] that the copy of the warrant and receipt . . . must be provided to the subscriber to the e-mail account, rather than just to the ISP. The notice must be provided to the subscriber because the ISP “has a far lesser privacy interest in the content of its subscriber’s e-mails than the subscribers themselves.”

This argument fails to take into account the third party context in this case. If a suspect leaves private documents at his mother’s house and the police obtain a warrant to search his mother’s house, they need only provide a copy of the warrant and a receipt to the mother, even though she is not the “owner” of the documents. (citations omitted). In such a case, it is irrelevant that the suspect had a greater privacy interest in the content of the documents than did his mother. When he left the documents in her possession he no longer has a reasonable expectation of privacy in their contents.


I think I found a judge who reads your blog…

Much of the reluctance to apply traditional notions of third party disclosure to the e-mail context seems to stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the lack of privacy we all have in our e-mails. Some people seem to think that they are as private as letters, phone calls, or journal entries. The blunt fact is, they are not.

I am concerned about the legal effect of this misunderstanding – are we entering a world in which all data storage is online, and so not protected by the constitution? For example, we just bought a scanner to upload our contracts and family records (bills, medical records, insurance and such).  I thought I was being a “good” lawyer when I decided to upload these to an online account. This way a disaster striking my home would not leave me without my vital records and contracts – my primary evidence in a contractual dispute. Now I am rethinking this. I never had the intention of opening those documents up to search and seizure without notification. Now my records live on a DVD in the bank vault – where the constitution still applies. DVDs in a bank vault, it’s a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem.

Very dicey topic. Thought you might want to weigh in.


This judge is saying that on the internet you essentially have no reasonable expectation of privacy. While I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment, I would submit that the act of encrypting data that is sent into the cloud does, in fact, give you a reasonable expectation of privacy – that being the sole purpose of encrypting the data. Therefore, while I’m not sure what the legal standing is on this, it would seem like encrypted data that requires a privately held key, explicitly excluding routine data transmission encryption (e.g. HTTPS and SSL), is no different than a safe deposit box at the bank where you hold the key. In other words, while you may be compelled to provide the key subject to a court order, that court order would require probable cause.

I can certainly offer some advice with respect to the offsite archive of your personal data.

I have a Verisign OpenID (which you can get for free here). In the process you setup a “Personal Identitly Portal” which includes an encrypted “File Vault” that holds 2 GB. That’s a lot of documents. I’m exceedingly paranoid so I encrypt everything prior to putting it in my file vault using SecureZip (which you can get for free here*) so there is minimal chance of exposure.

[* update 17-November-2010: SecureZip Express (free version) is no longer available. There is a 30-day trial available for free but the full product starts at $39US]


If the Government seizes documents which are encrypted can they then seize the key from you? The request for the key would be effective notice of sorts, but would you have to provide it? I know this is a purely legal question, but I thought you might know the answer.


Legally the answer is “yes” the government can compel you to reveal your password. Practically there are so many ways around it that the answer is “fat chance”. A really simple workaround would be for you to have an encrypted data store where only your wife has the key. A private key escrow. As you know your spouse can’t be compelled to testify (i.e. provide the key) against you.

The other point is that any encrypted data store whether online or not is not amenable to search. In other words you can’t even see what’s there so there is no way to know know what’s in it. From the point of view of Google, a Verisign file vault doesn’t exist.

If you are really paranoid, Bruce Schneier has this article all about plausible deniability. The article is about securing laptops but the principles apply anywhere.

The bottom line is, sure the government can try to compel you to reveal encrypted data, but only if they know it exists. TrueCrypt has this guidance on plausible deniability. So to be completely safe and secure you could create a “hidden encrypted volume” inside an encrypted volume and upload the encrypted container to a Verisign file vault. With a little creative key management, you would be untouchable in any practical sense.

Now you may end up doing time for contempt of court or some bogus DHS charge but your data will be safe.


Ok, this is heading into some really interesting legal waters. Building on your last comment,  I am not an expert on the criminal side, but I can tell you that on the civil side a judge can compel discovery. If you do not comply the Judge can order the jury to draw the negative inference (meaning that they will be instructed that the encrypted document is what the plaintiff says it is, and that it says what they say it says). There is however a safe harbor for electronic documents destroyed in the course of regular maintenance – I would be interested to see if this would include encryption keys which are time sensitive, or single use.

Switching to the criminal example we are working with – if my wife had a physical copy of the key (on a hard drive or otherwise) a judge could compel production of this in the same way he could make her give over a murder weapon. If it was memorized, I suppose she could refuse.

My concern wasn’t really with the compulsion to turn it over, it was the fact that you get no notice. This allows for secret searches (fishing expeditions)  to take place. Also, presumably they have probable cause, or the warrant in this case would not have been issued.

I do find the distinction between encrypted data and non-encrypted data, and the differing expectations of privacy intriguing. However, would your expectation of privacy survive the fact that the data is housed on another person’s machine. In the example the case offers, a letter on your mother’s table can be taken into evidence without your notice if your mother’s house is searched under a valid warrant. In that case the only one who gets notice is dear old mum. It is hard to argue the ruling would be different if you had the papers in a safe at mom’s place – the result would be the same, notice to mom, none to you.  Would the same be true for packets of encrypted information on internet servers? Maybe you have an expectation of privacy with encrypted data (like with the safe) but the reality is governed by the physical location of the “evidence”. Once they have the encrypted data can they subpoena you, or your mom, or others, to compel the production of a key? I acknowledge this would give you notice. This is more proof that the internet is absolutely non-private, even when encryption leads to an expectation of privacy.

The problem is, the conclusion that the internet is a group of guest houses through which your packets pass, and at any given time are subject to ownership by the individual who runs the house, is a troubling roadblock for the development of the net. In order to streamline our society, the internet must at some point be viewed as an instant “post-office” type service. While people sometimes use the mail to do bad things, or even steal it, the Feds and suing parties can’t. In fact messing with people’s mail, even by carriers and third parties, is a crime. Shouldn’t the same model be imposed on the internet, even if it is a legal fiction? Wouldn’t such a model be better for the ISP’s and users?


The salient feature of encrypted data is that it is useless (i.e. random noise) without the decryption key. If you hold that key then clearly you must be notified in order to compel you to provide the key, otherwise there is no evidence.

For example, let’s say that the letter you left on mom’s table was encoded using a one-time-pad. The letter is seized under a valid court order. What have they got? Diddley. Just some weird random text on a page that is meaningless until the key – which only you have – is applied to it.

Now they can try to decode it, but the chances of success are exceedingly unlikely. They may attempt to compel you to provide the key, at which point if you refuse, you may get slapped with contempt or adverse inference but either way you get notified.

So unless they can make the case that some random collection of bits is anything more than just that, it will be impossible to use it for a fishing expedition. The point being, who cares if they seize it, it’s useless.

The original court opinion was with respect to GMail type services where your data is stored in cleartext for anyone who has the legal authority or technical prowess to see. But even the U.S. government would have a hard time deciphering AES 256 encrypted data without the key in your lifetime.

As for the instant “post-office” model legal fiction you suggest, that’s called “Net Neutrality” and the main groups opposed to it are the entertainment industry who wants to control their copyrighted content (same clowns, different circus) and some large ISPs that would like to give precedence to their own content over competitors (everybody thinks they can be Microsoft). Of course that’s not what they’re saying, but it essentially boils down to that. For the record, I agree that net neutrality would be much better for ISPs and net users alike. Whether they recognize it or not.

3 thoughts on “Does encryption imply expectation of privacy?

  1. Pingback: Freelance Samurai » Google, DNS, the popo and the middle earth of privacy on the internet

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