US has asked Apple, Google to help unlock devices in more than 70 cases

About 30 of the cases are as recent as 2015, according to the ACLU

U.S. government agencies have filed more than 70 orders requiring Apple or Google to help law enforcement agencies unlock mobile devices since 2008, despite the agency insisting its fight with Apple in a recent terrorism case was limited in scope.

The Department of Justice dropped its California case against Apple after the FBI found a way to break into one of the San Bernardino shooters' iPhone without assistance.

But the American Civil Liberties Union has identified 64 cases where representatives of the DOJ have filed All Writs Act orders seeking assistance from Apple or Google to unlock mobile devices. The ACLU's numbers are on top of 12 cases identified by Apple lawyer Marc Zwillinger in mid-February, the group said. 

The DOJ and FBI insisted their efforts to require Apple to help them break into an iPhone in the San Bernardino shootings was "just about that one case," ACLU lawyer Eliza Sweren-Becker wrote in a blog post. "Even though the FBI no longer needs Apple's help in that case, the FBI’s request was part of a sustained government effort to exercise novel law enforcement power."

The All Writs Act, from 1789, allows courts, with some limits, to "issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law."

The FBI has insisted its request in the Apple California case was "narrow."

"The San Bernardino litigation isn't about trying to set a precedent or send any kind of message," FBI Director James Comey wrote in February. "The relief we seek is limited and its value increasingly obsolete because the technology continues to evolve. We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land."

Asked for comment on the more than 70 cases, an FBI spokesman referred back to that Comey blog post. Many of the cases identified by the ACLU involve the Drug Enforcement Administration, like the FBI a part of the DOJ, or the Department of Homeland Security, a separate agency.

Nine of the cases identified by the ACLU are targeted at Google. But the company has not received any order "like the one Apple recently fought that demands we build new tools that actively compromise our products' security," a Google spokesman said by email. "We would strongly object to such an order."

In seven of those nine Google cases, the DOJ has requested the company's help with password resets, a different type of assistance than the recent California case in which the FBI wanted Apple to rewrite the iPhone operating system as a way to defeat password protections. In the other two Google cases, the type of assistance is unspecified.

Although one case dates back to 2008 and a handful back to 2010 and 2011, about 30 of the cases identified by the ACLU are from 2015 or 2016. Many of the cases involve illegal drugs and not terrorism, the group said.

Apple has resisted the All Writs Orders in many of the recent cases, according to information from Zwillinger. Beyond the California case, the most active case is in Brooklyn, New York, where the FBI has appealed an order from Magistrate Judge James Orenstein, who ruled that Apple isn't required to assist the agency in a drug case.

The ACLU published a map and a list of the All Writs Act cases on Wednesday.

The DOJ has said it still plans to use courts to force smartphone makers to help law enforcement agencies unlock devices. The agency filed a warrant in Sacremento on March 1 asking smartphone makers to help break into a terrorism suspect's phones, Forbes reported.

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags applefbi

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Grant Gross

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Essentials

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?