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Apple versus the FBI: US has asked Apple, Google to help unlock devices in more than 70 cases

Grant Gross | March 31, 2016
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.”

US 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 says.

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.

 

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