Tech Tuesday: How Investigators Cannot Make You Give Up Your Passcode, and How Technology Keeps Private Boundaries in Flux

SmartphoneThe line of privacy, it seems to me, continues to be defined over the years. Social media, eCommerce, and wearable tech all feels like we are teetering on a precipice. We want the convenience and the extra perks of technology and communications, but there is also that desire to keep things to yourself, keep certain personal things personal. It’s a real conundrum, and not only are we struggling with where that line of what is public and what is personal, but now law enforcement is dealing with that struggle.

It’s a gray area for supervisors and executives at your workplace. You should not be compelled to give out your passwords to social media accounts, unless the subject matter could prove damaging to a business’ reputation or daily operation, but it turns out that corporations are not alone in struggling with these boundaries. We all know that mobile phones carry a lot of personally identifiable information (or PII) on them; and in criminal investigations a mobile device could easily crack a case wide open. Does this mean that, at any time without provocation, law enforcement can compel us to give over access to our digital data? A federal judge has recently ruled that the Securities and Exchange Commission cannot make two former Capital One employees hand over the passcodes to their own work-supplied smart phones to prove that they were guilty of insider trading. The ruling has come under some scrutiny, one critic claiming the Pennsylvania-based judge “…did not seek an order forcing the defendants to hand over records of insider trading. If that had been the order, the ruling would be correct.”   

So what does this ruling mean for you and your personal data? The US Constitution’s 5th Amendment to the Constitution protects people from self-incrimination, but it doesn’t protect you from self-incrimination if there are corporate records. In this case both of the devices are locked with codes that only the owners knew. Now personal information is still covered by the personal protection according to the court, so the judge did not believe that that SEC could put these suspects in jail or holds them in contempt because they refused to hand over codes. Even if compelled, how can you prove a suspect remembers or forget a passcode?

It should also be noted that if biometrics—security based on a thumbprint, for example—were needed to open up smartphones, these suspects would not have been protected by the 5th Amendment.

Just something to be aware of.

Privacy does exist in our digital world, but it comes back to your own personal monitoring of what you share and what you store. If you are storing data on a computer that is connected to the Internet, your best assumption is to regard that Internet as if it is your front door. You can close and even lock this door, sure, using anti-virus and malware protection; but that doesn’t mean your lock can’t be picked. Privacy happens offline so consider where your data is stored, how it is stored, and how it is secured. We’ve moved beyond a single package of software as a solution. Optimum solutions involve more vigilance that some may find inconvenience.

But what is convenience truly worth to you? 



shurtz.jpgA research physicist who has become an entrepreneur and educational leader, and an expert on competency-based education, critical thinking in the classroom, curriculum development, and education management, Dr. Richard Shurtz is the president and chief executive officer of Stratfdord University. He has published over 30 technical publications, holds 15 patents, and is host of the weekly radio show, Tech Talk. A noted expert on competency-based education, Dr. Shurtz has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for educators in Jamaica, Egypt, India, and China, and has established academic partnerships in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Malaysia, and Canada.


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