US used tactic from Apple encryption fight in 60 other phone-unlocking cases

The US government has used the same legal tactic it deployed in its encryption fight with Apple in more than 60 other phone-unlocking cases, according to a tally by a privacy watchdog, including other iPhones and devices running Google’s Android operating system.

The American Civil Liberties Union scoured court records across the US for cases where the government relied on the All Writs Act to try to force Google or Apple to help them unlock a phone. The statute, which has its origins in a more than 200-year-old legal principle, gives judges broad authority to ensure their orders – such as search warrants – are fulfilled.

In the Apple case, the US Department of Justice cited All Writs in pushing a judge to order Apple to write software that would make it easier for federal investigators to guess the iPhone passcode of Syed Farook, the San Bernardino gunman. Lawyers for many technology companies – including Microsoft, Google and Facebook – argued this would create too broad of a precedent under All Writs.

The judge in the San Bernardino case never gave a final ruling on that question after the Justice Department withdrew its case. The FBI said that it had found a way to hack into the phone without Apple’s help.

Still, the government, as it has said before, appears to have some success in using All Writs repeatedly in recent years to get into locked phones. Many of the cases involved requests to download data or reset pass codes.

The ACLU found 14 such cases in California, 12 in New York and five in Illinois. The total came to at least 63 confirmed cases since 2010. In court, government lawyers have said they used All Writs some 70 times successfully to unlock phones.

The ACLU confirmed 63 cases in total. It could not be confirmed in how many of the cases the government had success.

In March 2015, the government asked Apple to extract data from several iPhones, including a model 5S, which can run modern security tools. The case involved an illegal gambling ring in Nevada.

Meantime, the government in a 2013 drug trafficking case in New Mexico sought help from Google in resetting a phone running its Android operating system.

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