US federal agencies have forced Apple and Google to help them unlock mobile devices in at least 63 cases across the country, and a number of similar cases about which little is known are currently in progress, according to figures published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The US Justice Department disclosed in a case in Brooklyn that it had already secured about 70 such orders, and the ACLU said it used this figure as a guide to find more precise information.
The group on Wednesday published the details, including docket numbers and links to public court documents, of 63 confirmed cases since 2008 in which Apple or Google were compelled to help unlock mobile devices by federal agencies using an 18th-century law known as the All Writs Act.
The group argues that such actions, including the FBI’s recent attempt to force Apple to unlock an iPhone linked to a militant shooting investigation, are illegitimate as they constitute a use of the act for which it wasn’t initially intended.
“The FBI’s request was part of a sustained government effort to exercise novel law enforcement power,” wrote ACLU attorney Eliza Sweren-Becker in a blog post announcing the figures, which are presented in the form of an interactive map.
The ACLU’s position is that taken by Apple, which refused to comply with the order, while the US government, acknowledging numerous such cases, has characterised them as routine investigative actions.
Apple only changed its formerly compliant attitude due to the attention surrounding the case, which centred on shootings last December in San Bernardino, California, the FBI said. The FBI dropped its request after saying it had independently cracked the iPhone involved in the case.
The investigators’ position is also that presented by GCHQ director Robert Hannigan, who told an audience at MIT earlier this month that IT companies have long helped investigators access data held on locked mobile devices, and continue to do so now.
The ACLU argued its findings show a consistent abuse of power by the US government.
“These kinds of orders have actually become quite ordinary,” wrote Sweren-Becker.
The 63 confirmed cases include actions brought by the US Secret Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Land Management, which, for instance, in one case used the act as part of a 2012 drugs investigation involving marijuana grown at a site near Medford, Oregon.
Twelve of the cases are in New York State and 14 in California, with the remaining cases spread across 20 other states.
All the cases involve a federal agency applying to use the All Writs Act to compel the assistance of Apple or Google in accessing a locked mobile device, and most involve drugs-related crimes.
The ACLU said it has jointly filed additional Freedom of Information Act requests with the Stanford Center for Internet and Society and expects these to reveal additional cases, which are to be added to the map.
The map includes roughly another 13 unconfirmed cases, and ACLU noted that Apple has identified 12 additional pending cases whose docket numbers aren’t known.
Reports in February pointed to the existence of about a dozen ongoing, undisclosed cases involving the invocation of the All Writs Act for aid in cracking mobile devices.
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