Lock Out the FBI for $200

"There are no 'back doors' or secret entrances to access the files. The only way to get access without the password is to use an automated system which repeatedly guesses passwords," Magistrate Judge Jerome Niedermeier, who was presiding over the case, wrote. "According to the government, the process to unlock drive Z could take years."

Jonathon Giffin, an assistant computer science professor at Georgia Tech, said without the password there was only one way to get into the computer: with "brute force."

"They start trying all possible passwords, hoping that they have passwords that you use," Giffin said. "The expected time it would take is years, decades, unless you have extremely powerful computers."

Even the FBI doesn't have that kind of computing power, according to Giffin.

"The FBI probably does not. The NSA probably does," he speculated. "That's really one of the NSA's jobs — to develop cryptosystems for our military as well as to crack the cryptosystems of other governments."

The government subpoenaed Boucher to try to force him to type in his password and give the government access to the computer.

In November, Niedermeier ruled that forcing Boucher to enter his password would violate his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

"If Boucher does know the password, he would be faced with the forbidden trilemma; incriminate himself, lie under oath, or find himself in contempt of court," the judge wrote.

In the 1990s, according to Virgil Gligor, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, the U.S. government attempted to prevent situations like Boucher's.

"In the late '90s, there was a government initiative, in which the government required any encryption mechanism to save keys [or passwords] and give keys to the government," Gligor said. "It failed."

Even since then, encryption programs have only improved.

"The quality of encryption that we have nowadays is actually … very good," Gilgor said.

Without that type of regulation proposed a decade ago, the government has been left with one option: to appeal the court's decision.

Russell Goldman contributed to this report.

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