Paper 2020/862

Protecting Cryptography Against Compelled Self-Incrimination

Sarah Scheffler and Mayank Varia


The information security community has devoted substantial effort to the design, development, and universal deployment of strong encryption schemes that withstand search and seizure by computationally-powerful nation-state adversaries. In response, governments are increasingly turning to a different tactic: issuing subpoenas that compel people to decrypt devices themselves, under the penalty of contempt of court if they do not comply. Compelled decryption subpoenas sidestep questions around government search powers that have dominated the Crypto Wars and instead touch upon a different (and still unsettled) area of the law: how encryption relates to a person's right to silence and against self-incrimination. In this work, we provide a rigorous, composable definition of a critical piece of the law that determines whether cryptosystems are vulnerable to government compelled disclosure in the United States. We justify our definition by showing that it is consistent with prior court cases. We prove that decryption is often not compellable by the government under our definition. Conversely, we show that many techniques that bolster security overall can leave one more vulnerable to compelled disclosure. As a result, we initiate the study of protecting cryptographic protocols against the threat of future compelled disclosure. We find that secure multi-party computation is particularly vulnerable to this threat, and we design and implement new schemes that are provably resilient in the face of government compelled disclosure. We believe this work should influence the design of future cryptographic primitives and contribute toward the legal debates over the constitutionality of compelled decryption.

Available format(s)
Cryptographic protocols
Publication info
Published elsewhere. MINOR revision.USENIX Security Symposium 2021
compelled decryptionlaw and policydistributed cryptography
Contact author(s)
sscheff @ bu edu
varia @ bu edu
2020-12-30: revised
2020-07-12: received
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Short URL
Creative Commons Attribution


      author = {Sarah Scheffler and Mayank Varia},
      title = {Protecting Cryptography Against Compelled Self-Incrimination},
      howpublished = {Cryptology ePrint Archive, Paper 2020/862},
      year = {2020},
      note = {\url{}},
      url = {}
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