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Is Your iPhone Passcode Off Limits to the Law? Supreme Court Ruling Sought

Two civil-liberties groups are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on an increasingly relevant digital-privacy question: Do Americans have a constitutional right to keep their passwords and passcodes secret?

It’s a thorny legal issue, and one that is unsettled in the U.S., according to lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who on Thursday filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking it to decide the matter once and for all.

The initiative is the latest twist in a tug of war between technology companies, which have radically increased the security of their products over the past decade, and law-enforcement authorities, who have increasingly relied on digital evidence to make their cases.

Five years ago, the Justice Department tried to compel Apple Inc. to develop a way for law enforcement to access locked iPhones, but it later abandoned the quest. Investigators currently rely on private companies that essentially hack into the phones as a way to uncover the data inside.

Most states haven’t decided the password matter, said Jennifer Granick, a lawyer with the ACLU. So while U.S. law is clear that the police can’t force suspects to divulge the combination to a safe, for example, that’s not the case when it comes to an iPhone passcode. “It’s ambiguous almost everywhere,” she said.

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