Security & Fraud

Not Just Apple — Feds Asked Google To Unlock Phones

While Apple’s battle with the DOJ over access to an encrypted device continued to spark public debate in recent weeks, this actually isn’t the first time tech companies have been subject to the government’s “effort to exercise novel law enforcement power.”

On Wednesday (March 30), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed that it was able to find 63 cases in which the government sought assistance in accessing data stored on a mobile device under the All Writs Act.

“At the heart of the legal battle is the All Writs Act, originally passed in 1789, which gives courts the authority to issue orders necessary to enforce other lawful orders or decisions,” Eliza Sweren-Becker, an attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, explained in a post on the advocacy group’s blog. “We’ve found that the government has been using the law to force tech companies to help unlock their customers’ devices in dozens of cases since 2008.”

The ACLU published an interactive map that identifies exactly where these cases have appeared, their docket numbers and the federal agency that conducted the investigation. The group said that the majority of the cases are related to investigations surrounding drug crimes.

“The FBI wants you to think that it will use the All Writs Act only in extraordinary cases to force tech companies to assist in the unlocking of phones. Turns out, these kinds of orders have actually become quite ordinary,” Sweren-Becker continued.

According to The Wall Street Journal, while the majority of the cases discovered involve Apple, the government sought such orders from Google as well, in most cases requesting that a device’s password be reset in order for investigators to see data on the phone.

“We carefully scrutinize subpoenas and court orders to make sure they meet both the letter and spirit of the law,” a Google spokesman told WSJ. “However, we’ve never received an All Writs Act order like the one Apple recently fought that demands we build new tools that actively compromise our products’ security … We would strongly object to such an order.”

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