63 cases seek access to locked Apple, Google phones, ACLU says

Freedom of information requests revealed cases primarily focused on unlocking phones in drug-related crimes

security locked laptop

The American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday it has uncovered 63 confirmed cases in which federal agencies have sought court orders to force Apple or Google to unlock phones to gain access to data.

The ACLU posted a blog and an interactive map of the U.S. to show where the cases were filed.

The group gleaned the information through Freedom of Information requests that it filed jointly with the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. The interactive map will be updated as more cases are uncovered, according to the blog by ACLU attorney Eliza Sweren-Becker.

All 63 confirmed cases involved a request by a government agency that relied on the All Writs Act to compel Apple or Google to provide help in accessing data on a mobile device, Sweren-Becker said. Some of the cases go back to 2008 and primarily are investigations into drug-related crimes.

In addition to the 63 cases, the ACLU knows of 13 others that are included in the map, although their docket numbers or some other details aren't known, the blog said.

Sweren-Becker said the ACLU's disclosure of multiple cases points out a "sustained government effort to exercise novel law enforcement power."

The FBI revealed on Monday that it was able to gain access to an iPhone used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino attack without Apple's help. Subsequently, a federal judge in that case vacated her iPhone hack order against Apple.

The ACLU posted the data partly "to show how widespread the government's attempts to get tech firms to bypass phone security are," an ACLU spokesman said by email. "It also makes clear how inevitable another court showdown is" in addition to the San Bernardino case.

"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," Sweren-Becker wrote in her blog. "Turns out, these kinds of orders have actually become quite ordinary."

Asked to respond to the ACLU's disclosures and comments, an FBI spokesman referred to earlier FBI statements showing the agency's concerns going back 18 months about how encrypted data is used to hide communications by criminals and terrorists.

FBI Director James Comey in February in commenting on the San Bernardino case said, "We don't want to break anyone's encryption or set a master key loose on the land."

In another undated statement, the FBI reiterates its view that "the FBI supports strong encryption."

A Computerworld review of the ACLU disclosures found that several federal agencies, in addition to the FBI, have sought court orders to unlock devices. They include the U.S. Secret Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Land Management. For example, the BLM sought a court order in Oregon as part of a drug investigation in 2012 at a marijuana grow site near Medford, Ore.

The disclosures include 12 cases in New York and 14 in California — the most of any state. There are 20 others states with cases, some with just one case.

In addition to the ACLU disclosures, USA Today reported Wednesday that state and local officials in more than a dozen jurisdictions have been confronted with more than 1,000 locked smartphones and devices that are blocking access to potential evidence in criminal matters.

In New York, the number of locked devices that could contain vital information for criminal investigations is more than 200, according to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, as reported by USA Today. New York Police have said there are "hundreds" more phones that are blocked, according to the newspaper.

Also Wednesday, CBS News reported that it had learned from an unnamed government official that the FBI holds the rights to the technology used by a third party to access the locked iPhone in the San Bernardino case.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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